Democrats in Congress have cited the lead-contaminated water in Flint, Mich., for several months as one of the major problems facing lawmakers, an issue that was mentioned in the same breath as gun control, the Zika virus and the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.
The Senate is expected to hold a procedural vote next week on a bill that would send millions of dollars to the eastern Michigan city of 100,000, but passage into law isn't a sure thing given obstacles in the House. Even with that uncertainty, however, Democrats this week didn't make a point of highlighting funding for Flint as a must-pass bill this month.
In Wednesday's weekly press conference, the top Democrats in the Senate — Minority Leader Harry Reid, Minority Whip Dick Durbin and Sens. Chuck Schumer and Patty Murray — didn't mention Flint at all in their remarks about the week's top legislative priorities.
And at a press conference on Thursday urging Republicans to "do your job," neither Reid nor Vice President Joe Biden mentioned Flint. A handful of House Democrats mentioned the crisis in passing on Wednesday and Thursday, usually in the context of slamming Republicans for allowing a seven-week recess, but quickly moved on to other issues.
That leaves Michigan's senators and Flint's congressman as the only ones left still publicly pressing their case. Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow on the Senate floor urged action on the Water Resources Development Act of 2016, which includes a $220 million deal that would help the city.
"People have said to me, 'Gosh, that was really bad what happened before in Flint,'" she said. "And I say, no, no, it's not what happened before. It's still happening. There's still bottled water being delivered to homes and people have been waiting and waiting and waiting."
The Senate will hold a procedural vote on WRDA next week.
Flint made national headlines when state and federal states of emergency were declared because of lead contamination in the water.
The then-state controlled city government ordered a change in water sources in April 2014 from Lake Huron to the Flint River. But the river's water was so polluted and acidic that it caused lead pipes leading from the main city pipes to homes to deteriorate and decay into drinking water. The National Guard was called in to deliver bottled water to homes in the city. Residents still cannot drink the water without using a filter.
The federal state of emergency ended in August, but some government agencies remain in Flint.
Stabenow said 9,000 children under the age of 6 in Flint have elevated levels of lead in their blood and many of the lead pipes there have not been replaced.
"There's certainly a great sense of urgency coming from families in Flint and certainly around Michigan as well," she said.
Rep. Dan Kildee acknowledged that his city's problems have fallen off the public radar in recent months, but insisted to the Washington Examiner that discussions continue behind the scenes.
"Nobody really wants to do or say anything that would jeopardize that action," the Democrat said. "When I speak to the leader [Nancy Pelosi], when I speak to the White House, when I speak to my friends in the Senate, we still have our eye on the ball."
Kildee added that he's more confident now than he was before the summer recess that Congress can come up with an agreement to help his hometown. One of the big sources of confidence for Kildee is the Water Resources Development Act.
The bill, which provides about $9 billion for water infrastructure projects and drinking water safety, includes a $220 million deal that would go toward Flint and cities like it. The deal was originally attached to a comprehensive energy reform package until Republican objections caused it to be stripped from that bill.
The deal would make $100 million available to any state experiencing a drinking water emergency, provide $70 million to back secured loans to upgrade clean water and drinking infrastructure, and authorize $50 million in funding for health programs to address and prevent the effects of lead exposure. It would be paid for by ending an advanced vehicle program in the Department of Energy popular among Michigan lawmakers.
Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., also emphasized on the floor Thursday that the deal for Flint wouldn't cost the government any additional funding.
"We have a pathway to success if we can move to a final vote on this legislation," he said.