Senator Tea Party In Bind Over Port vs. Pork

Update: Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-SC) spokesman accuses Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) of being a johnny-come-lately to securing funds for the Port of Charleston. He says “era of earmarks is over” and earmarks are backlogged at Army Corps of Engineers, exacerbating the problem with the port funding. Instead of trying to directing the Army Corp to fund the study, he wants to create a commission to ensure projects are funded on their merits. More developments, including DeMint spokesman’s full statement.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), or Senator Tea Party as he’s sometimes known, has found himself between a bit of a rock and a hard place over spending for a job-dependent project in his district and his role as the leading anti-earmark crusader in the upper chamber.

Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), a prominent House Democrat, on Thursday issued a scathing indictment of DeMint, his GOP South Carolina colleague, for effectively killing jobs in the state by refusing to back money for a study on deepening the Port of Charleston.

But others, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who is threatening to “tie the Senate in knots” over the funds, have said DeMint supports federal funds for the port and is privately helping to secure them.If he is, DeMint isn’t saying so publicly. He has been radio silent on the matter even as other members of the delegation, such as Graham and Clyburn, a prominent Democrat, have spent the last days squawking about the need to secure the port funding and dire impact on the state’s economy of not doing so now.

DeMint’s office didn’t respond to TPM’s repeated requests for comment over the past two days.

While DeMint has continued his reticence on the issue, Tea Party Patriot co-founder Mark Meckler has blasted Graham’s burst of pro-spending zeal, telling TPM that the senator “sounds like a petulant child.”

“If it’s that important to his state, perhaps Senator Graham ought to pay the $50K out of his own pocket,” he wrote in an e-mail to TPM. “Or perhaps the citizens of his own state would like to volunteer to fund it. Or perhaps the companies who would benefit from the deepening of the port might want to fund it.”

Graham on Tuesday threatened to block all of President Obama’s nominations from getting through the Senate because last week’s last-ditch budget deal, which slashed $38 billion, did not include a mere $50,000 for an Army Corp of Engineers Charleston port study.

The Port of Charleston is connected to 260,000 South Carolina jobs, and big business in the state — such as BMW and Michelin — depend on it and are pushing hard for the funds for the deepening study.

DeMint, a much more stalwart and strident advocate of spending cuts than Graham, appears to support spending for the port project — he just doesn’t want it to occur through an earmark, which he has made a career out of demonizing.

Clyburn said DeMint, who has led the charge for eliminating earmarks in the Senate, three times last year stepped in and stripped out an earmark for $400,000 for the study, according to Clyburn who had secured the earmarks. He wouldn’t even sign onto a letter the South Carolina delegation sent to Obama requesting the funds.

The White House has a long tradition and unofficial rule that both senators much be unified on a project before the administration will include it in the President’s budget request. In this case, Graham and DeMint were divided so the administration left it out, Clyburn said.

“We have not gotten both senators to make a request,” Clyburn said. “You don’t want something in the budget benefiting the state and have one senator out there lambasting it.”

But DeMint is in a tough spot on this one because he supports funding the port and appears to be working behind the scenes to get the money. He just doesn’t want to risk the wrath of the Tea Party now that Graham is catching heat for trying to secure the funds for the pet project even though an earmark is no longer involved.

Graham on Wednesday told TPM “Jim’s been helpful” and “absolutely” supports the project. The two have introduced a bill that would change the way the Army Corps of Engineers funds projects, but that bill has a long legislative path ahead, and the funding for the port is needed as soon as possible.

When asked on Thursday whether DeMint still supports securing funds for the port study, Graham’s spokesman pointed to previous comments Graham made to TPM about DeMint’s role.

South Carolina businesses are eying a 2014 expansion of the Panama Canal, which will significantly increase cargo loads. They want Charleston to reap those benefits of the surge in shipping business but first must enable the harbor to accommodate a new generation of ships that require deeper channels.

To make matters worse, there’s competition with the Port of Savannah, which is also seeking funds for a deepening study. President Obama’s 2012 budget includes $600,000 for a deepening study for Savannah, which Clyburn said occurred because both GOP Georgia senators, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, requested the funds even though they both support a ban on earmarks.

Graham and Clyburn no doubt want to ensure Charleston’s study begins this year, ahead of Savannah’s study. In fact, Graham has said it’s imperative the study begin this year so that Charleston can retain its “competitive advantage.”

Clyburn refused to address the competition question, saying only that Charleston — with its wide channels — is better equipped to handle the expected surge in shipping in the next two years.

Clyburn and Graham are working overtime to get the study funded. Graham has authored language to include in the an upcoming bill that would direct the Army Corps of Engineers to prioritize funds for harbor-deepening, including “those that are prepared and are ready to begin first year feasibility study-related activities.”

That language does not violate the newly imposed earmark ban in Congress, Graham has said, because it doesn’t specifically direct money to the Port of Charleston’s study. Needless to say, there are 12 ports across the country that are ready to begin first-year feasibility studies, including Charleston, as well as 11 other ports in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Hawaii, Alaska and North Carolina.

The $50,000 would fund the study on all of these ports for the remaining months of the fiscal year, but would require hundreds of thousands — if not millions more — during the next appropriations cycles to complete.

For critics who said the state should come up with its own funds for the Army Corp of Engineers’ study to deepen the port, Graham spokesman Kevin Bishop said such an easy solution is actually impossible under federal law.

The South Carolina State Ports Authority, which is responsible for operations of the Charleston Port, is ready to write the check for the state’s share of the the study, but federal law requires Congress to cough up funds to enable the Army Corp of Engineers to move forward with the study. It would be the second step in the process; a first study already determined a federal interest in deepening the harbor.

“The Corps requires virtually all ports around the country to shoulder some of the costs of feasibility studies, engineering, and design on harbor deepening,” Bishop said. “South Carolina is ready to go. Now we’re waiting on the feds to kick in their share. Without that green light, our state is stuck in neutral and cannot proceed.”

Graham and Clyburn have also talked to Vice President Joe Biden this week, as well as Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, to try to find the funds within the Arny Corp of Engineers itself.