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U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., vowed Tuesday to hold up the business of the U.S. Senate until he gets funding for a study to deepen the Port of Charleston.
Graham and fellow Republican, U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, spoke at a news conference in Charleston about $50,000 in federal matching funds to move along the process of deepening Charleston Harbor to 50 feet to allow the next generation of larger cargo ships to dock there.
"There is nothing that I will not do to right this wrong," Graham said. "I talked to the vice president. I made it clear to him that none of their nominees are going forward, that the squeaky wheel seems to get the oil. Well nobody's going forward in the Senate until we address this."
The port already is seeing some of the larger ships that need more than the port's 45-foot low-tide clearance even though the widening of Panama Canal to handle those ships is not expected to be completed until 2014, said State Ports Authority spokesman Byron Miller.
"We already have four ships a week that are too big for the Panama Canal," Miller said. "Currently, we can handle them, but they have to wait on the tides."
The fight for funding is not so much about the money -- about $50,000 in federal matching funds for a limited scoping study -- but about moving the process on to the next step. The overall cost of deepening the port is expected to be $300 million and the cost of the 2011 portion of the next study was originally at $400,000. Because the fiscal year is nearly over, Graham and Miller said, the amount of money the Army Corps of Engineers would need to move the process forward would be $50,000.
In the past, the project could have been easily moved forward by the process called earmarking in which a single lawmaker could get funding for pet projects at home like highways, water projects, community development grants and new equipment for police and fire departments. But the new crop of tea party-supported Republicans in the House -- including Scott -- helped push through a ban on earmarks when they the GOP took over the House this year.
"Now there's bipartisan blame here. The Republican Party, our party, Democrats included, say 'We need to create jobs, it's the No. 1 issue for the country,' " Graham said. "If that's true, how could you not set aside $50,000 to allow the study to go forward to make this port a jobs creator in the future? If we don't deepen the harbor, we put this port at risk."
The nearby rival Port of Savannah in Georgia got $600,000 in the current budget to wrap up a feasibility study of deepening that location to 48 feet.
"They're at the end of the step we're trying to get to," Miller said.
Ports Authority board chairman Bill Stern said economically it makes the most sense to deepen the Charleston port to the 50 feet that experts say will be needed to handle the huge container ships that will be the workhorses of the shipping industry after the canal is widened. The port, he noted, is centrally located along the East Coast and is already at 45 feet.
"I think it's a slap in the face to the people of South Carolina and I really don't understand why," Stern said.