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Why Mike Lee is stopping federal aid to fix Flint’s poisoned water

First Published      Last Updated Mar 04 2016 10:18 pm

Grandstanding? » Utah senator blocks the bill to help clean the water, argues Michigan has enough money.

Sen. Mike Lee is defending his decision to block a vote on a $220 million package to help Flint, Mich., respond to its lead-poisoned drinking water.

Initially, Lee, R-Utah, was part of a group of senators to place a procedural "hold" on the vote, but that group has shrunk and Lee is the only objecting senator to be identified. At first, he declined to comment, but he decided to break his silence Friday.

"Federal aid is not needed at this time," Lee said in a statement, noting that Michigan has a budget surplus and a "rainy day fund" that it could tap before turning to Congress. "The people and policymakers of Michigan right now have all the government resources they need to fix the problem. And those public resources are being augmented every day by the generosity of individuals, businesses, labor unions and civic organizations of every stripe from across the country. The only thing Congress is contributing to the Flint recovery is political grandstanding."

If that's the case, then it is bipartisan grandstanding.

Michigan's two senators, Democrats Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, are sponsoring this proposal with Republican Sens. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and Rob Portman of Ohio.

Their proposal, funded by redirecting money from a 2007 stimulus program for automakers, would create $100 million in subsidized loans for any state with a federal emergency due to lead contaminants in its water. Flint is the only community that would fit that description. The city of 100,000 could use the money to redevelop its water system.

Another $70 million would help secure loans up to $700 million for water projects nationwide. And $50 million would help create a lead-exposure registry and three children's health programs.

Since the measure would redirect emergency funds, any senator can raise a point of order blocking a vote, which Lee intends to do.

"I am extremely surprised that Senator Lee would be holding up a bipartisan bill that would help communities across the country including in his home state of Utah," Stabenow said in a statement Friday. "If Sen. Lee opposes this bipartisan bill, that is fully paid for, he should vote against it, but he should not block it from even getting a vote."

Michigan's senior senator remained optimistic despite Lee's persistent objections. In an interview with The Detroit News this week, Stabenow predicted a vote next week, which would require Lee to stand down.

"We're in good shape," she said. "We're moving along in the right direction, and I'm optimistic that things can get resolved."

But Lee took a hard stand in his statement Friday.

"What's really happening here is that Washington politicians are using the crisis in Flint as an excuse to funnel taxpayer money to their own home states, and trying to sneak it through the Senate without proper debate and amendment," he said, "I respectfully object."

The Flint water crisis began in 2014, when the city switched its drinking-water source to the Flint River. The more corrosive water caused lead from the pipes to enter the drinking water, and thousands have been exposed.

Long-term exposure to lead can cause serious health problems, particularly in young kids, according to kidshealth.org.

Lead poisoning can lead to anemia and damage children's developing brains.