A battle over emergency aid to an American town with contaminated drinking water delayed Senate action on a major overhaul of the U.S. energy sector that could reduce Europe's dependence on natural gas from Russia and U.S. dependence on strategic minerals from China.
On Thursday, Senate Democrats, joined by a handful of Republicans, prevented the chamber from advancing Congress' first comprehensive attempt in nearly a decade to address America's future energy needs. Consideration of the bill will resume next week.
At issue is federal assistance to Flint, Michigan, where toxic levels of lead in the drinking water have sickened thousands of children and forced 100,000 residents to rely on bottled water. Exposure to lead can cause irreversible mental and physical problems in children.
The state's U.S. senators, both Democrats, sought hundreds of millions of federal dollars to help Flint fix and replace old pipes. When unable to reach an agreement with majority Republicans on a formula for the aid package, they led a successful effort to block votes on the energy bill, which Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had hoped to pass by week's end.
"Flint needs the support of all levels of government to overhaul its damaged water infrastructure and help the children of Flint, who will be dealing with the health effects of lead exposure for decades to come," said Michigan Senator Gary Peters.
"We are asking you to care and see these children [of Flint] like you see your own children," said Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow. "To hold them with as much value as you would children in your own family and in the states that you represent."
Bipartisan support for bill
The energy bill has significant bipartisan support — a rarity for major legislation on Capitol Hill.
It seeks to reduce America's carbon emissions for electricity and protect the nation's power grid from cyber-attack. The legislation also would liberalize liquefied natural gas exports and encourage domestic mining of so-called rare earth minerals, which are used in everything from advanced weapons systems to smartphones.
"You will like it [the bill] if you are an American interested in producing more energy," McConnell said. "You will like it if you are an American interested in paying less for energy. You will like it if you are an American interested in saving energy.
"We know that Russia is the dominant supplier of natural gas to Western Europe," McConnell continued, asserting that more U.S. natural gas exports would "weaken Russia's strategic stronghold, while boosting our domestic economy."
Republican Senator John Cornyn lamented delays in getting to a final vote on the bill, and accused Michigan's senators of seeking a federal blank check for Flint's water woes.
"The fact of the matter is, the state of Michigan and the city of Flint don't yet know what they need to do to fix the problem, or how much it will cost," Cornyn said. "This is about trying to embarrass Republicans and portray us as having no compassion for the poor people of Flint, which is exactly the opposite of true."
Peters said he supports the energy bill and hopes it passes, but not before the Senate takes action to assist his constituents in Flint.