By Melanie Zanona, Scott Wong and Mike Lillis
This article appeared on The Hill on Sept. 28, 2016
Congressional leaders had the playbook for how to avoid a messy pre-election government shutdown all along. They just had to execute the plays.
Republican and Democratic leaders had given hints about this possible path for days, if not weeks: Congress would attach aid to deal with the drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich., to a separate water projects bill, appeasing Democrats who had been holding the spending bill hostage over the issue.
Then lawmakers would pass the stopgap funding bill, leave town and get back to the campaign trail.
The bipartisan deal on Flint “was the key that unlocked everything else,” said one leadership source.
After a flurry of phone calls and meetings, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) reached a deal Tuesday night on federal aid to address Flint — the final major sticking point in negotiations over a 10-week bill to fund the government.
“We decided we don’t want to create brinksmanship. That doesn’t do anybody any good,” a victorious Ryan said Wednesday at the Economic Club of Washington, D.C.
The Senate approved legislation keeping the government funded through Dec. 9 on Wednesday afternoon, with the House approving separate legislation that includes money for Flint hours later. The House approved the stopgap measure Wednesday night, 342-85.
“We’re basically having a low-drama moment here, because I think we’ve sort of taken the sting out of the room that we used to have,” Ryan said, highlighting his outreach to Democrats as well as conservatives in his party.
In the end, all of the political posturing over a potential shutdown just weeks before the presidential election — the partisan finger-pointing in floor speeches and press conferences — was for naught.
But the victory wasn’t the quick and easy one many had anticipated when lawmakers returned this month after a long summer recess. And few predicted that an impasse over funding to address the lead contamination in Flint’s drinking water supply would emerge as the biggest threat to a deal.
In her early conversations with Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Pelosi had pressed the GOP leaders to include $220 million for Flint — the same provision approved as part of the Senate’s water bill — in the government-funding bill, or continuing resolution .
Pelosi and Democrats saw it as the most certain vehicle for securing the Flint funding, which many Republicans deemed a local issue.
Ryan and McConnell repeatedly refused, arguing that the aid should be handled in the water bill. Instead, the Speaker offered to make “some sort of public commitment” to do Flint later, said an aide familiar with the negotiations. This time it was Pelosi who refused, demanding a more ironclad commitment to ensure Flint wasn’t abandoned in the lame-duck session of Congress.
On Tuesday afternoon, Pelosi hosted a press roundtable in her Capitol office, where she amplified her demand that the Flint funding be “legislated now.”
“We’re not talking about pie in the sky,” she said.
Shortly afterward, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) rallied all but four Democrats to block the Republicans’ funding bill because it contained no money to address lead contamination in Flint.
The Senate was at an impasse, and it was unclear what McConnell would do next. He threatened to pull a separate amendment providing $500 million to flood victims in Louisiana, West Virginia and Maryland.
Democrats howled. But Reid’s move handed Pelosi more leverage in the fight.
Bipartisan negotiations in the House quickly kicked into high gear.
Pelosi and Ryan spoke twice Tuesday afternoon about drafting a Flint amendment on the water bill. Earlier in the week, the GOP majority of the Rules Committee had determined that a similar amendment was not “germane,” or relevant, to the water bill. So the amendment needed to be restructured as an authorization rather than an appropriation to make it acceptable.
To further pressure Ryan, Pelosi also reached out to McConnell, who agreed to talk to the Speaker about taking concrete action on the floor this week, aides said.
At 4:45 p.m. Tuesday, Pelosi gathered her entire Democratic leadership team in her office to update them on the path forward; she also invited two-term Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), whose district includes Flint.
Pelosi “deputized” Kildee and dispatched him to the Speaker’s office, where for several hours he, Ryan and leadership staffers negotiated the wording of the amendment. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) phoned freshman Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Mich.) and urged him to team up with Kildee. Kildee phoned Michigan’s senior senator, Democrat Debbie Stabenow, throughout the evening, to keep her up to speed. Stabenow was spotted walking outside the Capitol Tuesday night talking on the phone about Ryan.
The final product was a bipartisan amendment, authored by Kildee and Moolenaar, that authorized $170 million for Flint. Kildee wanted more money but said he settled for what he described as a “significant number.” The Rules panel approved the amendment shortly before midnight, and it was successfully attached to the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which cleared the House on Wednesday.
“You get close to one of these [recesses] and time sort of accelerates. And that’s sort of what happened,” Kildee said in an interview, describing his talks with Ryan. “We did 48 hours of work in 12 hours.”
In her conversations with McConnell, Pelosi also asked if he would make a statement on the Senate floor emphasizing his strong commitment to keeping the Flint language in the final WRDA package — a promise McConnell fulfilled Wednesday morning, saying he’s “extremely serious” about “ensuring that Flint funding remains in the final bill.”
Reid wasn’t involved in the final negotiations, but Pelosi was keeping him in the loop. He also spoke to McConnell and had countless phone calls with Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff.
The bipartisan agreement was finalized for a simple reason: It allowed all sides to take a victory lap.
Democrats had already won several victories in the funding fight last week when GOP leaders agreed to abandon a provision barring Planned Parenthood from receiving new funds to combat the spread of the Zika virus and another blocking the Obama administration from transferring control of internet domain monitoring to an international body.
On top of that, the Democrats secured the Flint money they’d demanded, while keeping Congress — and vulnerable Republican incumbents — in Washington much longer than GOP leaders had hoped to stay.
GOP leaders, who are scrambling this year to keep control of the Senate and minimize expected losses in the House, were able to appease conservatives by keeping Flint off the funding bill while also averting a shutdown. The Republicans took a political drubbing after the 16-day government shutdown of 2013, and this week’s Flint deal means they’ll avoid a similar debacle just weeks before November’s high-stakes elections.
The Republicans also secured one of their top policy priorities: a provision preventing the Securities and Exchange Commission from requiring corporations to disclose more political donations.
“It took some good work, and I think we’ve got a good package,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) told The Hill.