Utah senator blocks emergency bill for Flint, Michigan

Lee’s opposition helps build his brand as a hardcore conservative.


Utah Sen. Mike Lee is grabbing headlines again for holding up action in the Senate. The Tea Party Republican has not shrunk in the past from using procedural tactics to snarl the Senate. He and presidential candidates Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., led the effort that shut down the federal government in 2013 because of their opposition to Obamacare. Lee tied up the Senate in 2014 over President Obama's use of executive powers to institute new immigration policies. This time Lee’s target is a bipartisan bill to help Flint, Michigan, and other communities with drinking water emergencies.

And in a year when he’s facing reelection with little real competition, his opposition to the widely popular Flint bill doesn’t seem to have created any political fallout, at least not yet. Some say that even if he loses, he wins. “It adds to his own brand,” said Sarah Binder, political science professor at George Washington University. “My hunch is he gets more attention to his cause and gets more robust backing if he goes for the jugular.”

Sen. Mike Lee of Utah speaks at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference.
Gage Skidmore. CC/Flickr
When Democrats and Republicans first announced a bipartisan deal two weeks ago, it looked like it was on the fast track to approval. “Congress can and should take necessary action to support the critical infrastructure that keeps Americans safe and makes way for new economic opportunity for our nation,” Republican James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, said at the time.

The bill would provide $250 million to fund emergency drinking water fixes nationwide, and deal with health problems caused by lead exposure. The impetus of the bill was a crisis in Flint, where local, state and federal officials responded slowly to alarmingly high levels of lead in drinking water. Starting in 2014, thousands of young children were exposed to lead, which damages developing brains and causes lifelong problems. (A study confirming the spike in lead in children’s blood came out in September and the city declared a state of emergency in December.)

But Sen. Lee that same day secretly objected to the Flint bill coming up for an expedited vote, according to his spokesman Conn Carroll. He exercised what is called a “hold.” Senators’ holds usually are not public. But on Friday, Lee confirmed his hold and laid out his problems with the Flint bill.

“What is happening to the people of Flint, Michigan is a manmade disaster,” Lee said in a press release. But he argued that federal aid is not needed to replace the old pipes in Flint and other Michigan cities that are leaching lead. Michigan has an ample rainy day fund and a budget surplus, and should remedy its own problem, he said. “What’s really happening here is that Washington politicians are using the crisis in Flint as an excuse to funnel taxpayer money to their own home states, and trying to sneak it through the Senate without proper debate and amendment. I respectfully object.”

Although other senators, including Cruz, reportedly had holds on the Flint bill, they have since released them, leaving Lee to be what the conservative Daily Signal website called “a one-man dam.”

Lee’s spokesman said the senator was in negotiations to remove his hold and would do so if the bill’s sponsors found a way to pay for it by cutting funding from another program in the same year. But he still would vote against the bill.

Lee’s position flabbergasted many supporters of the bill. “Do you really need to make that stand over children who have been poisoned by drinking water? It seems so ridiculous and out of touch. The public is outraged by what is happening in Flint,” said Madeleine Foote, legislative representative for the League of Conservation Voters. “The federal government helps states with crises all the time — floods, hurricanes. This one was manmade. People poisoned the children of Flint with their decisions.”

But conservative groups had Lee’s back, and even gave him kudos. “People are mad; they have every right to be. Folks were being poisoned. That doesn’t mean the federal government swooping in with a new federal program is going to fix it,” said Dan Holler, spokesman for Heritage Action, a right wing group that gives Lee a 100 percent on its scorecard.

Lees’ hold reflects a recurrent dynamic in the GOP-controlled Congress as Tea Party ideologues try to pull the rest of the Republican Party to the right. Lee’s hold puts Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on the spot. “He’s kind of daring him,” said Binder. “Let’s see where the balance of our Republicans colleagues are on this issue. Are we the party that’s going to shrink the federal government or go along and get along?”

There was more at stake and Lee had more company in 2013 when he helped orchestrate the government shutdown over Obamacare and in 2014 when he filibustered the Senate over Obama’s immigration policies. In the end, he failed to block Obamacare or the president’s immigration reforms. After the 2013 government shutdown, polls showed his popularity suffered, with more than half of Utahans viewing him unfavorably, and he still isn’t very popular except with conservative Republicans. He’s up for reelection in November but no strong opponent has emerged.

The outcome of the obstructionist tactics this time is unclear. So far, Lee’s hold on the Flint bill hasn’t received much attention in Utah. “I don’t think he’s going to be portrayed as hard-hearted in the Utah press,” said Jeremy Pope, a Brigham Young University political scientist.

By putting a hold on the Flint bill, Lee effectively is holding a broad bipartisan energy bill hostage too. The Energy Policy Modernization Act would help modernize the electric grid, promote energy efficiency and renewable power, train workers, and streamline liquified natural gas exports. The two bills are tied together — with Democrats refusing to vote on the energy bill without the Flint bill and Republicans refusing to vote on the Flint bill without the energy bill. The energy bill is a top priority of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R- Alaska, but Lee and some fellow conservative Republicans oppose it. 

Another barrier to the two bills came from a Florida senator who supports both the energy bill and the Flint  bill. Sen. Bill Nelson, D,  opposes allowing a vote on an amendment to the energy bill that would increase the share of revenue that states get for allowing offshore drilling. Although the amendment doesn't mention Florida, Nelson fears it would create immense pressure to open up drilling in areas closer to Florida's coast.

For Lee, there doesn’t seem to be much political price for holding up that bill. While the senator has received many calls both supporting and opposing his hold on the Flint water bill, Carroll says no one from Utah has called about the energy bill.

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent.

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