The Senator Holding Flint Aid Hostage

As Flint, Michigan, deals with the effects of utter government failure, Sen. Mike Lee is secretly preventing them from receiving assistance from the federal government—all on a technicality.

03.03.16 2:00 AM ET

The intellectual leader of the tea party movement in the Senate is secretly holding up a bill to help the residents of Flint, Michigan, who have been poisoned by their own water supply.

As Republican presidential hopefuls gather in Detroit for a critical post-Super Tuesday debate, Sen. Mike Lee is stalling plans to alleviate the nearby town’s drinking water crisis—a disaster that has a disproportionate and devastating impact on the poor and the young.

Lee is using a Senate tactic used to gum up the works known as a “hold,” which is generally kept secret so the lawmaker can remain anonymous. But two senior Senate sources confirmed to The Daily Beast that Lee is behind the maneuver to stall an utterly uncontroversial provision.

Privately the Utah Republican has relied on three reasons to justify his opposition to the legislation, all of which are procedural or philosophical.

Lee doesn’t like that the proposal is not being put through the ordinary and time-consuming gantlet of Senate procedures known as “regular order”; has objections on how money from the stimulus is being repurposed for water infrastructure; and is concerned about the federal government getting involved in what he views as a local issue.

His action—or inaction—comes as lawmakers in the Senate are scrambling to advance urgent legislation that would make hundreds of millions in grants and loans available to Flint, which in January declared a state of emergency after thousands of its residents were exposed to toxic levels of lead.

The initiative, which senators want to add to a larger energy policy bill, ultimately doesn’t cost any new government funds, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, since the proposal is paid for with money redirected from a subsidy for the automotive industry.

The crisis began in 2014 when Flint changed the source of its water from Detroit’s water supply to the Flint River, ostensibly to save money. The new water supply was corrosive, which caused lead from the system’s pipes to contaminate the drinking water supply. Between 6,000 and 12,000 children have been exposed to lead during this crisis, something that will take years—if not decades—to address.

Originally, approximately 10 senators took advantage of the “hold” maneuver, blocking progress on the Flint proposal. Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz made a hasty retreat after news of his hold was leaked to the press.

One by one senators relented, leaving Lee as the lone senator to use the tactic on money for Flint.

The Flint package, proposed by Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, would dedicate $250 million to aid the response to the crisis, including grants and loans to help repair drinking water infrastructure in struggling communities.

The proposal seeks to address those hardest hit by the poisoned water by dedicating $50 million to the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services in order to monitor communities with lead contamination in the drinking water system and other public health efforts.

“Lead, after it poisons the body, is undetectable as [soon] as a year after exposure—but the damage is already done. That’s why health authorities have to put in place ways to monitor children in Flint for the rest of their lives, in order to mitigate the consequences of this drinking water crisis,” said a senior Senate aide. “This bill helps fund that for Flint and all other similarly afflicted cities.”

An additional $100 million would go to a fund that provides grants to states which have declared an emergency due to lead or other contaminants in public drinking water—so far Flint is the only community with this distinction. Finally, $100 million would go toward financing loans for water infrastructure projects across the country, for which Flint would also be eligible.

Lee refused to answer questions when approached by The Daily Beast this week. His office also declined to give a response.

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The Utah senator’s objections may not play well at home, where he is running for re-election this year. Utah requires $3.7 billion for drinking water infrastructure over the next 20 years to meet minimum requirements in human health and safety, according to an EPA report presented to Congress in 2013 (PDF).

“Blocking it sounds like Mike [Lee]… He may just feel like it’s not the government’s job to help Flint, but I think that he’s misguided. He believes strongly in his principles,” said Shaun Dustin, the mayor of Nibley City, Utah, and also an engineer.

The mayor added, “He’s not a very pragmatic man and I don’t know that he understands how fundamental some of this stuff is… I think he’s got two problems. One is that he’s not looking towards the future, and the other one is that he’s so hung up on his ideological fixations that he can’t see the pragmatic need to do something.”

—with additional reporting by Katerina Pappas.