Energy Bill in Limbo After Flint Deal Collapses

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By Ari Natter

Feb. 3 — The fate of a broad Senate energy bill was in limbo Feb. 3 after a deal to include funding to help with a crisis caused by lead-tainted water in Flint, Mich., fell apart, leading Democrats to vow to block the underlying legislation.

While Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) told reporters she thought she had secured a deal for an amendment that would provide “less than half” of the $600 million originally sought by Senate Democrats to replace the city's water infrastructure and other priorities, Republicans balked at the cost of the measure and other issues.

“If they don’t work with us, I think it’s a big question if they get cloture,” Stabenow said. “If they want a bill, we want to help the people of Flint.”

In a statement, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said the compromise was rejected because of Senate rules that require spending bills to originate in the House, a procedure known as a blue slip.

“The offset that was under consideration—but not agreed to—does not work according to the Congressional Budget Office,” Murkowski said. “It would also present a blue slip problem with the House, preventing the bill from reaching conference, and the people of Flint from ever receiving assistance. We are still looking for an offset and still trying to help.”

Negotiations Called Ongoing

Later in the afternoon, Stabenow and Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said negotiations were ongoing, but a compromise had yet to be reached.

Stabenow said an earlier compromise, proposed via an amendment filed by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), was “a complete insult” because it would use funding through an Energy Department program for vehicle research.

The underlying 424-page energy bill, which includes language to expedite the federal approval process for liquefied natural gas exports among many other measures, was approved in the committee on an 18-4 vote, but at least six Democrats would need to vote for it with Republicans to reach the 60-vote threshold required to cut off debate on the legislation and proceed to a vote on the bill.

Democrats Vow to Block Bill

Democrats emerged from a lunchtime caucus meeting vowing to block the bill.

“Our caucus feels like we have to do something about Flint now, and they ought to back off,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate's No. 3 Democrat, told reporters. “It seems to be the hard right is blocking it and we’ll have trouble. We’ve got to do something.”

The Flint crisis emerged after the state's appointed emergency manager decided to switch from the city of Detroit's water system to using water from the Flint River, but measures to control corrosion weren't put in place at the time of the switch. That lapse allowed lead to leach out of aging pipes and into residential tap water and resulted in elevated levels of lead in children's blood and other health issues .

Republicans, for their part, were still considering what, if anything, should be done about Flint and if the bill was the appropriate legislative vehicle, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) told reporters after the party's lunchtime caucus meeting.

Action Called Premature

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters the Senate's action was premature.

“I think that is part of the concern that this seems a little premature to write a multi-hundred-million-dollar blank check when the state hasn’t actually assessed their needs,” he said.

Cornyn hinted Senate Republicans may hold the cloture vote scheduled for Feb. 4 and “see if the Democrats want to block an energy bill they've supported all along over this issue.”

If enacted into law, the legislation, which also includes provisions that would increase cybersecurity protections for the electricity grid and expedite the licensing process for hydropower projects, would be the first broad rewrite of energy policy since the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

Amendments Approved

Late Feb. 2 the Senate approved 11 amendments by voice vote, including one by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) that would require the federal government to set “clear and simple policies for the use of biomass as an energy solution, including policies that reflect the carbon-neutrality of forest bioenergy.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups criticized the amendment, saying in a Feb. 2 letter, “This requirement would result in substantial damage to forests and climate by undermining the scientific process established by the [Environmental Protection Agency] in the Clean Power Plan to review and assess the impacts of certain forms of ‘qualifying biomass' under that Plan.”

Also approved by voice vote was an amendment by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) that would establish a task force to analyze and assess the Aliso Canyon natural gas leak at Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility in Los Angeles County.

With assistance from Anthony Adragna and Amena Saiyid

To contact the reporter on this story: Ari Natter in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at