Cruz blocks vote on bill to resolve Flint water crisis

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has become an issue in the presidential campaign. Photo by Rebecca Cook/Reuters

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has become an issue in the presidential campaign. Photo by Rebecca Cook/Reuters

WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz is holding up bipartisan legislation to address the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where lead-contaminated pipes have resulted in an ongoing public health emergency.

Senators reached a tentative deal Wednesday for a $220 million package to fix and replace the city’s lead-contaminated pipes, make other infrastructure improvements and bolster lead-prevention programs nationwide.

Cruz, of Texas, and at least one other GOP senator objected to a quick vote on the deal, delaying Senate consideration of the bill until at least next week. Cruz was campaigning Thursday ahead of a scheduled Republican debate in Houston, but senators are able to block bills remotely under Senate rules.

“There are a few holds” on the bill, Kristina Baum, a spokeswoman for Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said Thursday. Inhofe chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and was a main architect of the Flint deal.

Baum declined to identify senators who were objecting to the bill, but said Inhofe and other senators were “genuinely trying to work through their concerns.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairwoman of the Senate Energy Committee, said she was optimistic lawmakers could resolve the dispute and take up both the Flint bill and a larger energy package it is tied to next week.

Cruz spokesman Phil Novack said staffers were “simply reviewing the bill right now,” noting that the Flint proposal only emerged on Wednesday.

Novack declined to specify the nature of Cruz’s concern, but many Republican senators have said it’s too early to provide funds for Flint without specific plans from state and local officials. Some Republicans also question whether Flint is analogous to natural disasters such floods or hurricanes, since the crisis was the result of a political decision.

Flint’s drinking water became tainted when the city switched from the Detroit water system and began drawing from the Flint River in 2014 to save money. The impoverished city was under state control at the time.

Regulators failed to ensure the water was treated properly and lead from aging pipes leached into the water supply.

Elevated levels of lead have been found in some children’s blood. Lead contamination has been linked to learning disabilities and other problems.

The crisis in Flint has become an issue in the presidential campaign. Campaigning in Flint on Thursday, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said he hopes people will look at the city’s water crisis and say, “Never again.”

Hillary Clinton said there are a “lot of Flints” and that she wants to help them. Flint is a majority black city, and Clinton questioned whether a similar crisis would have occurred in a “white, affluent suburb of Detroit.”

The legislative impasse over Flint has blocked a bipartisan energy bill that had been moving forward in the Senate. Under the tentative agreement, the Senate would vote on the energy bill before taking up the Flint legislation as a separate bill.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., said the plan provides $100 million for subsidized loans and grants to any state that declares an emergency due to a public health threat from lead or other contaminants in its public drinking water supply.

“Certainly Flint is an extreme example right now, but there are problems all over the country” with lead in aging pipes, Peters said. “We’ve got a widespread national problem and there should be resources to help every state in the union.”

Peters and other supporters said the deal would use federal credit subsidies to provide incentives for up to $700 million in loan guarantees and other financing for water infrastructure projects nationwide.

The bill would be paid for by redirecting up to $250 million from an Energy Department loan program approved in the 2009 economic stimulus law.

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, the nation’s largest environmental organization, said “Ted Cruz only cares about one thing — and that’s Ted Cruz. It’s clear that he’ll do anything to promote his own political aspirations without any regard for what’s right for Flint and communities like Flint across the country.”