Mark Sanford, the South Carolina Republican governor disgraced by lying to conceal an extramarital affair, has staged a political comeback and will be sworn in as the newest U.S. House member this week.
Sanford shouldn’t expect a celebratory welcome to the chamber where he served three terms before he was governor.
Republican leaders are wary of him and won’t be giving him plum committee assignments, though he keeps his seniority. Still, lawmakers will walk a fine line because Sanford beat his Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, by a wide margin, 54 percent to 45 percent.
“Some people, knowing how people are around here, they might keep a little distance,” Representative Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican, said in an interview. “I don’t think anybody excuses the behavior. But that’s not for us to judge. That was for the people of his own congressional district.”
Democrat Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee said, “I imagine he’s going to get some shots here and there, but I think he probably expects that.”
Sanford, once a rising star in the Republican Party, may be sworn in as soon as May 15. He replaces Representative Tim Scott, who is filling the Senate term of Jim DeMint, who resigned. The Republican Steering Committee will meet days after Sanford is sworn in to decide which panels he’ll serve on.
In 2009, Sanford admitted to an extramarital affair with an Argentine woman he visited in that country after telling aides he was hiking the Appalachian Trail -- which became a punchline for late-night talk show hosts. Sanford was censured by his state’s Republican-led legislature and paid ethics fines, though he didn’t resign. He finished his second term as governor in early 2011.
Sanford’s marriage ended. He is now engaged to the Argentine woman, Maria Belen Chapur.
Sanford represented much of his new House district from 1995 to 2001, retiring that year to honor a term-limit pledge. Under House rules, he retains his seniority.
Because he’s joining Congress partway through the first year of the session, his committee assignments will be limited to filling vacancies on panels that are usually less coveted. The timing of his return puts less pressure on House leaders because they won’t have to choose among high-profile committees or bump other members from assignments.
“If you come halfway through, some of the slots are already filled,” Representative Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican, said in an interview. Sessions said Sanford would stand “a better chance of having a choice” of good assignments in the next session of Congress.
Sessions, the chairman of the Rules Committee, called Sanford a friend and said there are some panel assignments that would “fit him nicely.”
Sessions cited the Natural Resources Committee and the Transportation panel as two possible spots for Sanford. Sanford previously served on the International Relations panel, now called the Foreign Affairs Committee. He also had assignments on the Government Reform and Oversight panel, the Joint Economic Committee and the Science Committee.
The Foreign Affairs panel, though, may be out of the question. It has no vacancy and his past membership on that committee is already fodder for jokes.
Sanford won his congressional seat with little help from the National Republican Congressional Committee, the political arm of House Republicans.
The organization kept its distance from his campaign after it discovered last month that Sanford’s ex-wife, Jenny, filed a complaint accusing him of trespassing at her home in February. Sanford said he wanted to watch the end of the Super Bowl with one of their four sons and unsuccessfully tried to reach his ex-wife, who has custody.
“With all the stuff coming out, how could you take the risk?” Representative Devin Nunes, a California Republican, said in backing the NRCC’s decision.“We couldn’t keep dumping money if these allegations were going to keep coming out. We’ve been down that road plenty of times.”
In his campaign to revive his political career, Sanford acknowledged mistakes in his private life as he asked voters to give him a second chance and to consider his 14 years in public office.
Sanford emphasized his favorable ratings from groups promoting spending restraint and tax cuts, and touted his opposition to appropriations projects in Congress and to federal stimulus funds as governor.
Sanford said he’s willing to overlook being shunned by the Republican establishment.
“Past is past, and I look forward to working with the entire Republican team,” Sanford said on Fox News Sunday.
Sanford said he’ll focus his attention on entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
“What I’m going to do is, in essence, look under the hood at a whole host of things,” Sanford said on the program yesterday. “I think you got to deal with the big rocks. The big rocks in Washington, D.C., are certainly entitlements.”
The lack of help from the congressional Republican establishment may lessen pressure on Sanford to go along with House leaders and allow him to vote against the party.
“Mark has always been a very independent guy, a very idealistic guy and there’s probably a challenge that when the NRCC pulled the money out at a critical time in his campaign he’s going to be even more independent and more dedicated to pushing ideas,” Representative Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican, said in an interview. “When he was a member, he never feared being the lone wolf on a bill.”
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