Senate Democrats on Thursday proposed up to $400 million in emergency federal aid to Flint, Michigan, half of what the state's Republican governor says it will cost to replace and fix the city's lead-contaminated pipes.
Senate Republicans were non-committal on whether they would back the measure that would spend money without any offsetting budget cuts and add to the deficit.
The Senate could vote as early as next week on the proposal, a move with political implications as Democrats insist that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and other state officials ignored a dire problem in the majority black city of 100,000 north of Detroit.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said "there's no doubt" in her mind that if the water problem had occurred in a wealthy, white community, the state would have responded immediately.
Pointing to a large photo of brown water in a Flint sink, Stabenow said that if one of Snyder's supporters had called the governor's office "and said, 'Our water looks like this. It smells. Our children are getting rashes. People are losing their hair. Help us.' I don't think it would be very long at all before it was fixed."
The amendment proposed by Stabenow and Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., would require the state of Michigan to match the $400 million federal spending on Flint pipes, dollar for dollar.
"This is a state responsibility," Peters said at a news conference Thursday at the Capitol. "The state broke it. They need to fix it."
Flint's water became contaminated when the financially-struggling city switched from the Detroit municipal system and began drawing from the Flint River in April 2014 to save money. The city was under state control at the time.
Regulators failed to ensure the water was treated properly and lead from pipes leached into the supply, leading to a spike in child lead exposure. Some children's blood has tested positive for lead, a potent neurotoxin linked to learning disabilities, lower IQ and behavioral problems
Snyder has estimated the cost of replacing Flint's water supply infrastructure at $767.4 million, although local officials peg the cost at twice that amount.
The measure introduced by Stabenow and Peters requires federal action if a state refuses to warn the public about unsafe water and authorizes $20 million a year for 10 years to monitor lead exposure in Flint. The measure also would require the Environmental Protection Agency to alert the public if there is a danger from lead in the water system, if the state refuses to act.
The Michigan senators and other Democrats offered the measure Thursday as an amendment to a bipartisan Senate energy bill.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called the water problems in Flint "disgraceful" and said "thousands of young children have lead coursing in their veins," not in an impoverished country but in the United States.
Peters said the issue was not partisan. "This is about the children of Flint," he said.
But other Democrats said the crisis in Flint came amid continuing Republican attacks on government regulation, particularly those aimed at the environment.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., decried what he called a "persistent and very well-funded campaign' by Republicans and business interests to "deride and degrade environmental protections" and even eliminate the EPA.
Whitehouse said the children of Flint "aren't big shots, they don't vote, but they sure as heck are entitled to drink water that isn't poisoning them and damaging their brain development."
The Senate proposal came as the Michigan Legislature unanimously approved $28 million in new funding to address lead contamination in Flint. The emergency spending bill includes money for more bottled water and filters and services to monitor for developmental delays in young children. The money also will help the city with unpaid water bills and cover testing, monitoring and other costs.
The Senate was voting Thursday on amendments to the energy bill, the first comprehensive energy legislation to come up for a vote in the Senate in nine years.
The wide-ranging bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., would update building codes to increase efficiency, strengthen electric grid safety standards and promote development of an array of energy forms, from renewables such as solar and wind power, to natural gas, hydropower and even geothermal energy.
Fierce partisan fights over the measure are expected as lawmakers offer amendments responding to President Barack Obama's energy policies and efforts to slow climate change.