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Government shutdown looms due to clash over Flint aid

Most households and businesses in Flint are still unable to use their lead-tainted tap water for drinking or cooking.
Most households and businesses in Flint are still unable to use their lead-tainted tap water for drinking or cooking.GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Senate blocked progress Tuesday on a bill that would keep the government fully operating past midnight Friday, led by Democrats who are vowing not to support any spending extension until Congress guarantees federal funding to address the drinking-water crisis in Flint, Mich.

Flint relief has emerged as the crucial sticking point in negotiations on the stopgap spending extension necessary to avert an unusual election-year shutdown.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, unveiled a bill last week that addressed several Democratic demands, including a deal on Zika response funding and the elimination of several contentious policy riders. But it did not incorporate the $220 million Flint aid package that passed the Senate in separate legislation this month.


The bill failed to advance Tuesday on a 55-to-45 vote. That means, due to provisions in Senate rules, that there could be a brief shutdown if all 100 senators do not agree in the coming days to speed up procedural hurdles.

Top Democrats in both chambers, as well as members of the Michigan congressional delegation, renewed their calls Thursday for swift action on Flint.

‘‘We have to get Flint done, the sooner the better,’’ House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, told reporters Tuesday, calling the stopgap spending bill the ‘‘best possible place’’ for the relief package. ‘‘We just want to get it done. We want a result, and we don’t see a result right this minute.’’

Republican leaders in both the House and Senate have countered by pointing out that Flint aid is likely to pass later this year as part of a separate water projects bill, which cleared the Senate on Sept. 15 on a 95-3 vote.

Instead, Senate GOP leaders charged, Democrats are trying to create a shutdown crisis for political reasons.

‘‘It’s almost as if a few Democratic leaders decided long ago that bringing our country to the brink would make for good election-year politics, and then they've just made up the rationale as they go along,’’ McConnell said Tuesday.


Democrats have sought federal relief money for the Flint crisis since January, and they are eager to get the funding passed into law. The issue has stirred resentments over the inequities in the treatment of a majority-black city, and it has stayed near the top of Democrats’ congressional agenda for months.

‘‘We understand the communities that we represent, and our minority caucuses do not want to vote for a bill that does not have Flint in it,’’ Pelosi said.

While the water bill that included Flint relief easily passed the Senate, the House version of the water bill, which is set to pass Wednesday, does not include the Flint funding.

The Flint crisis is now into its second year, with most households and businesses in the Rust Belt city still unable to use their lead-tainted tap water for drinking or cooking.

House majority leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, told reporters Monday that ‘‘we are going to deal with Flint,’’ but House Republicans moved later in the day to deny a vote on an amendment that would add it to the House water bill. That has Democrats skeptical that their GOP counterparts are making a good-faith effort to pass the aid package.

‘‘If I had any sense that the leadership in the House felt that Flint relief was appropriate, and the only question is which [bill] it should be placed in, that would be a different question,’’ said Representative Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat who represents Flint. ‘‘But I hear from the Republican leadership a question as to whether they should help Flint at all.’’