Congressional leaders reached a deal to avoid a government shutdown on Wednesday — when just a day earlier it looked nearly certain.
Democrats in the House and Senate had threatened to shut down the federal government without federal funding to deal with the lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan. They wanted emergency money for Flint relief included in the federal budget, and they didn’t think the government should be funded without it.
The issue has been building since early this year, when national news stories highlighted that lead-poisoned water was flowing to the disproportionately black residents of Flint. At the time, Democrats called for an urgent response, noting that corroded pipes needed to be replaced, with even President Obama promising “not to rest until every drop of water” in Flint was safe to drink.
Republicans never really went on record to say that Flint doesn’t deserve help. But the GOP had basically done everything in its power to block the Flint funding, and then argued that Democrats were irresponsibly holding the government hostage over one spending priority.
Those two positions made it look like we were headed for a high-profile government showdown just ahead of Election Day. But a new compromise, reported late last night by the Huffington Post, has now given both parties a way out.
The upshot is that Democrats look likely to win some of the relief for Flint they’ve long demanded. Republicans can avoid blame for letting the government shut down on their watch — a crucial test in an election year.
If approved by the House tonight, the agreement will fund the federal government for another 10 weeks, getting both parties through the election cycle.
And perhaps most importantly, Congress will take its first step in response to the crisis that exposed more than 8,000 children in Flint to the lifelong effects of lead on their brains and nervous systems.
"We finally have some momentum now," said Rep. Dan Kildee, who represents Flint, in an interview. "We still have a community in crisis, but this is an important step forward."
How we almost reached a government shutdown over Flint spending
It’s not unusual for Congress to get into disputes over what to fund and not fund in a spending bill, but there were a lot of high-profile fights surrounding this one — including ones over research funding for Zika, a campaign spending overhaul, and money to address the Flint lead crisis. But it was this last measure that was the final sticking point for a failed vote Tuesday that would have otherwise continued to fund the government.
There are two main ways Congress has considered passing the Flint aid: 1) through a “continuing resolution,” the emergency measure that merely keeps the government running at existing spending levels; and 2) through a separate bill in the legislative process — in this case, a more general legislative bill about water resources known as the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).
Republicans have been clear that they don’t think the continuing resolution is the right vehicle for the Flint money, noting that continuing resolutions are normally considered a way to pass measures for short-term emergencies.
Democrats have disagreed. They contend that children drinking poisonous water for months is, in fact, an immediate crisis. Not totally without reason, Republicans have countered that lead poisoning is a much broader and more complicated policy problem that should be handled in a more systematic way. (Indeed, completely eliminating lead poising in America — as Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has promised — is an effort that would cost hundreds of billions of dollars.)
Either way, it looked for a time like Republicans would eventually accept Flint aid through some other legislation, even if it wasn’t part of this upcoming budget. But then something happened earlier this week that threw a big wrench into the works: House Republicans advanced that WRDA water bill — but without any of the aid for Flint.
As the Senate was about to vote Tuesday, it became clear that the Michigan delegation faced the prospect of not having Flint aid in the new spending bill or in the longer-term water bill. Senate Democrats retaliated Tuesday by torpedoing the continuing resolution needed to fund the government — putting us on what suddenly looked like a surefire course for a shutdown.
The compromise that saved both Republicans and Democrats
But a government shutdown was unattractive to both parties in the runup to the election. In this election year, Republicans in particular were interested in keeping the government going to show they can govern, says Sarah Binder, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution.
“The GOP leadership has wanted to show voters that the Republican Party can be trusted to control Congress,” Binder says. “If there was a messaging war over a shutdown right before an election, Democrats would win that battle.”
So late Tuesday night, House Republicans agreed to put some version of Flint relief aid into the WRDA bill. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus — not to mention the Michigan Democrats — emphasized that Flint funding is a top priority.
“The bipartisan amendment on the floor today represents a real opportunity to send a message of hope to the people of Flint,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in a statement.
The deal was finalized Wednesday afternoon, and the addition of Flint funding to the WRDA bill was later approved.
Why some Flint advocates worry the compromise is too flimsy
Now, there’s still no absolute guarantee that the Flint relief will actually end up reaching the city’s residents. That’s because the WRDA will still have to be reconciled with a Senate bill passed earlier this year, and nobody knows what that process will look like.
That uncertainty is something of a bitter pill for some congressional Democrats and Flint advocates to swallow: They are essentially being told to trust that the Republicans will prove good on their word.
“If the WRDA bill falls apart, what does that mean for the families of Flint?” says Cara Baldari, the senior policy director for the nonprofit advocacy group Family Economics and Legal Counsel, which has been closely tracking Flint legislation.
Like the congressional Democrats from Michigan, Baldari says she would have preferred for the Flint funding to be included in the immediate CR measure and thus implemented immediately.
“The idea that this is not designated as emergency funding is really shocking,” she says. “If this is not an emergency, then what is? These children through no fault of their own are being exposed to lead through what is supposed to be a guarantee: clean water.”
Still, Democratic leadership is trying to assure their allies that the Republicans really will eventually see the Flint package over the finish line. And that promise, they say, is going to have to be good enough for now.
"I feel very comfortable in being able to say to the people of Flint, Michigan, that I've had conversations with people and have been given assurances by the Republican leaders that something will happen," said Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate’s Democratic minority leader, on the Senate floor Wednesday morning. "The House feels comfortable where they are on Flint. We feel comfortable in the Senate."
What Democrats have — and haven’t — won over the Flint lead crisis
But for the advocates who are demanding federal action over Flint, the frustration runs even deeper than having to wait for the resolution of another bill. And that’s because while the House and Senate bills are a start, they’re both far from what some experts think the federal government should do about the Flint water crisis.
Advocates acknowledge that the current Flint bill is not nothing. The House version steers $170 million toward public and private infrastructure repair for cities that have had emergency declarations for “water contaminants,” according to a House aide. Flint is expected to be able to apply for that funding — and use it to replace the pipes that spawned the crisis in the first place.
The Senate bill is bigger — it would cost around $220 million. Much of that money would go not only to a general national fund to replace pipes but also to things like funding health programs in Flint and specific aid relief for Flint itself.
But it’s worth pointing out that there are a lot of things that neither bill does. In February, Kildee of Flint introduced a $750 million funding bill called the Families of Flint Act. Among other things, it called for new school and health programs for children in Flint to offset the effects of being exposed to lead at an early age and money for a new Center of Excellence on Lead Exposure to study how to mitigate lead exposure.
Under the bill expected to be passed in the House, none of those things are on the table.