This post has been updated with comments from Senate Democrats.
A major energy bill went down in flames Thursday as Senate Democrats blocked its consideration so they could put Republicans on the spot for something else entirely: the Flint water crisis.
Both parties accused the other of playing politics with people’s water and lives. It was political drama at its finest, with Flint at the center.
Senate Democrats blocked the energy bill because Republicans wouldn’t attach a $600 million aid package for Flint. Democrats accused Republicans of being heartless; Republicans shot right back that Democrats were playing political games.
Welcome to mass tragedy-as-political football.
“This is about trying to embarrass Republicans and trying to make us look bad,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, seethed on the Senate floor after the vote. “And to portray us for having no compassion for the poor people in Flint, which is exactly the opposite of true.”
Democrats deny they’re getting political, saying approving aid for Flint is the right thing to do. They say they’re actually bending over backward trying to find a compromise, including cutting down the proposed aid package to less than half of its original number and making the rest loans, and that they actually refused a Republican offer to take a political show vote on Flint.
But Senate Democrats are playing hardball here to get what they want, because they think they can win the messaging war on Flint.
They’re betting by engaging in such a public fight over Flint, they can put Republicans in an awkward position — and maybe score some political points along the way.
“I invite my Republican colleagues to come to the floor and explain to the country why this man-made disaster is not worth the attention of the Republican party,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on the Senate floor Thursday, according to The Post’s Mike DeBonis.
Republicans are indeed in a tough spot on Flint. Many fiscally conservative lawmakers are wary of spending hundreds of millions of federal dollars on a man-made crisis, especially when Congress just passed a $1 billion spending bill that raises domestic and military spending over the next two years.
But saying no to helping a city of about 100,000 mostly poor, mostly black residents requires a delicate dance around the racial overtones. Republicans are doing their best to sound sympathetic to the residents of Flint while also making the case it’s not the federal government’s role to help.
“Given the fact that we have about $19 trillion in debt, I think it’s fair to ask: Do we want to have the federal government replacing all the infrastructure put in place by cities and states all across the country?” Cornyn asked last week.
Even Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), who has apologized twice for what happened in Flint, and his party feel the need to go on the offensive after congressional Democrats’ attacks. On Wednesday, House Democrats spent hours in a Republican-led hearing on Flint bashing the governor and wondering why he wasn’t invited to testify about what went wrong. One Democrat even compared Snyder to a criminal.
By Wednesday afternoon, Michigan’s Republican Party had made this a water spigot comparing Snyder’s efforts to repair the crisis with the Obama administration’s.
The message was clear: Snyder is the one working hard to solve Flint — not Democrats like President Obama. And this is a federal failure too, given the Environmental Protection Agency’s role.
The more aggressive messaging from the Michigan GOP comes as Snyder’s approval ratings after Flint have plummeted — though just 29 percent say he should resign from office.
Back in Washington, the finger-pointing suggests congressional aid for Flint could get mired in politics. And given the big move by Democrats on Thursday, it’s likely to get uglier before it gets more bipartisan.
Its future is unknown, but we can say one thing for certain: How to fix the crisis has become irreversibly political.