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The fight in Congress over money to help Flint, Mich., rebuild it's lead-tainted water system has become a flashpoint in Utah's Senate race.
Republicans are putting together a stopgap budget that includes money for flood victims in four states but at this stage doesn't include $100 million in aid to Flint, leading Democrats to oppose the measure. This comes after the Senate voted 95 to 3 on Sept. 15 on a separate $10 billion water bill that did include that assistance.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was one of the three senators to oppose the water bill, in no small part because he doesn't believe Flint should receive federal cash to replace old pipes that continue to leach lead into the city's water supply. The problem began when water managers switched the city's source of water without adding corrosive-control chemicals. Flint's water crisis has drawn a national spotlight, at least in part, because of racial undertones. The city is majority black and has a high rate of poverty. But for Lee, this is a vote based on the role and responsibility of the federal government.
"You are dealing here with a local utility, a local utility that messed up, and if every time a local utility messes up the federal government is going to step in and create a new program, then I think we are going to have a lot more of these problems," Lee told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday.
His Democratic opponent, Misty K. Snow, has criticized Lee repeatedly for his stance against federal aid for Flint, saying he lacks compassion for those still relying on bottled water nearly a year after a public health emergency was first declared.
"I do not want children drinking poisoned water, and the government should do everything in its power to prevent that from happening," Snow said. "It's unacceptable that Mike Lee has used his position as a senator to do everything in his power to block and delay federal funding that would have protected our citizens from contaminated water."
Back in March, Lee blocked a vote on a bigger $220 million emergency package for Flint, requiring Michigan's Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters to seek another legislative avenue. They were able to get funding added into the water-development authorization bill. Beyond $100 million in grants and loans to replace pipes, it included $50 million to test water and $70 million in water infrastructure loans. Lee couldn't block that bill because more than 60 senators were in favor of the legislation.
Senate Democrats will continue to push for the Flint aid as Congress tries to wrap up a short-term budget before leaving town this week in advance of the November elections.
Lee, seeking a second term, holds a big lead over Snow, a first-time candidate. A UtahPolicy.com poll, conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, found Lee leading 60 percent to 23 percent. That poll was conducted the first week of September and had a margin of error of 3.98 percent.