Update: Deal reached to keep U.S. government running, help Flint

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional leaders have broken a stalemate over money to address the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, clearing the way Wednesday for a spending bill needed to keep the government running until December.

The hybrid spending measure – the last major item on Capitol Hill’s pre-election agenda – would fund the battle against the mosquito-borne Zika virus and provide rebuilding assistance to flood-ravaged Louisiana. Lawmakers are set to move it forward on Wednesday as they eye the exits.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said the breakthrough on Flint “will help unlock” the short-term government spending bill, which stalled in the Senate Tuesday over demands by Democrats that the measure include $220 million to help Flint and other cities deal with tainted water.

Instead, top lawmakers like Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have agreed to address Flint’s water crisis in a separate water development bill slated for a House vote Wednesday. The Senate version passed last week and contains $220 million in Flint-related funds. Top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell promised the funding would be in the final version of that measure.

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The deal would avert a potential federal shutdown and comes just three days before the midnight deadline to keep the government open. It caps a lengthy battle over Zika spending, a months’ long struggle over Flint, and late pressure to provide flood aid to Louisiana.

The politicking and power plays enormously complicated what should have been a routine measure to avoid an election-eve government shutdown.

McConnell, R-Ky., said that the long-quarrelling Senate finally has “a path forward” on the stopgap spending bill measure. A Senate vote is expected Wednesday and a House vote could follow Wednesday night.

After meeting with McConnell Wednesday morning, Reid said, “I am convinced that there’s going to be help for Flint” in the post-election, lame-duck session and said that the stopgap spending measure should advance.

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The stopgap spending bill would keep the government running through Dec. 9 and provide $1.1 billion in long-delayed funding to fight the spread of the Zika virus and develop a vaccine and improved tests to detect it. Zika can cause grave birth defects.

On Tuesday, Senate Democrats and a dozen of the chamber’s most conservative Republicans joined to block the temporary spending bill. Democrats said help for Flint and its lead-contaminated water had to advance immediately and they were not willing to accept a promise that it will come after the election.

But the Democratic position softened after negotiations involving Ryan and top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California, among others. Republicans also relented and agreed to put the House on record on the Flint measure after denying Democrats a vote on a different version just Tuesday.

The Flint measure, an amendment to a separate water projects bill, would authorize $170 million to help Flint and other cities with water emergencies. The actual funding would be provided after the election in the final version of the water measure.

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Charges of racism and campaign-season antagonism between Republicans and Democrats had slowed efforts to pass the spending measure. Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee, Flint’s congressman, had accused Republicans of ignoring the plight of predominantly black Flint because Republicans would not permit a vote on a Senate aid package to deliver the money now.

But Wednesday morning Kildee issued a statement that called the upcoming vote on the non-binding $170 million promise for Flint “a step forward to ensuring that Flint families get the resources they need to recover from this crisis.” The $220 million Senate measure, which passed earlier this month, earmarked $120 million for Flint.

The amendment represents a bipartisan agreement authorizing the funding, but the actual money would await the final House-Senate version of the bill after the November election.

The spending bill also contains $500 million to help Louisiana and other states rebuild from recent floods and full-year funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs. It also includes more than $500 million for Fort Worth’s Trinity River Vision project. 

Democrats argued it’s unfair that the water crisis in Flint has gone on for more than a year with no assistance, while Louisiana and other states are getting $500 million for floods that occurred just last month. Democrats have played a strong hand in the negotiations and had leverage because Republicans controlling the House and Senate were eager to avoid a politically harmful shutdown some six weeks to the election.

McConnell has made numerous concessions in weeks of negotiations, agreeing, for instance, to drop contentious provisions tied to Zika funding that led Democrats to block prior Zika measures. A provision to make Planned Parenthood ineligible for new anti-Zika funding for Puerto Rico was dropped, as was a provision to ease pesticide regulations under the Clean Water Act. Democrats relented and agreed to a $400 million package of spending cuts.