WASHINGTON (CN) - Senate Democrats blocked a sprawling bipartisan energy bill Thursday after Republicans did not include federal funds to aid the lead-poisoned water crisis in Flint, Mich.
The vote followed through on threats Democrats made Wednesday after more than a week of debate in the Senate to derail the bill if it did not include Flint funding.
Republicans have pushed back against the funding because of procedural issues and unanswered questions about how Michigan would spend the money.
To stop the energy bill from going forward Thursday, Senate Democrats rallied enough support on two separate debate-ending votes known as cloture motions.
The second, decisive vote finished 43-54 against cloture, falling well short of the 60-vote threshold necessary to move forward on the legislation.
Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, both Michigan Democrats, took to the floor before the votes and asked for more time to negotiate an agreement with Republicans.
"We know that we can come to a resolution if there is the political will and a little more time," Stabenow said on the floor. "So that it's not just some bogus proposal, we've had things thrown out that don't solve the problem."
Stabenow said both sides have come close in recent days to reaching an agreement on federal funding to help repair the infrastructure that has exposed Flint residents to leaded water. Procedural questions halted one effort, Stabenow said, adding that the other was "paused" for reasons unclear to her.
But Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican and sponsor of the energy bill, insisted that a deal is close and tried to convince her colleagues to support the legislation before continuing to the issue of Flint aid.
"Our problem is not about whether we should offset the costs of this assistance; it's how to do so in a manner that does not destroy the underlying energy bill, does not violate the Constitution or the rules that we have here in the Senate," Murkowski said on the floor.
Murkowski tried just before the vote to line up votes on amendments for Flint aid - including one offered by Stabenow and one of her own - which would have occurred after debate ended on a version of the energy bill known as a substitute amendment. Stabenow objected and told reporters later she did so to avoid setting up partisan votes on competing funding packages.
"We don't want a vote that makes the people of Flint, the children of Flint a political football," Stabenow told reporters. "If that's what we wanted - just a vote that went down, where the blame game would start - we would have already done that. What we want is help for the people of Flint."
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, joined Murkowski on the floor to support the energy bill, saying lawmakers would be "putting the cart before the horse" by moving on Flint aid before a comprehensive assessment of cost.
He also accused Democrats of politicizing the issue instead of accepting solutions to the problem.
"It's not an effort in good faith to solve the problem," Cornyn told reporters after the votes. "It's [an attempt] to try to create an issue and a wedge, and to embarrass people. But the fact of the matter is we all share the same goal of trying to help the people of Flint. It's just not primarily a federal government responsibility. They don't even have a plan yet. They haven't done an infrastructure-integrity study to be able to know what they actually need."
But the energy bill is not dead yet. Shortly after the votes blocking the bill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., filed a motion to reconsider, which would allow the Senate another vote on cloture as soon as next week.
Cornyn said Republican leadership hopes Stabenow, Peters and Murkowski can reach an agreement on Flint aid before that second vote occurs. Murkowski echoed Cornyn's hope on the Senate floor later Thursday.
Until Flint aid derailed it, the energy bill had enjoyed rare bipartisan support. It contains provisions to update the electrical grid, free up natural gas exports, and provide new subsidies for hydro and geothermal power.
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