WASHINGTON — The most powerful members of the South Carolina congressional delegation are unable or unwilling to take the steps necessary to secure emergency funding to save the jobs of 2,600 public school teachers in the state.
Time is running out as Congress rushes to finish its lame-duck session by Dec. 17. Anti-spending Republicans will take over the House of Representatives and wield more power in the Senate when the new Congress convenes next month, making it unlikely South Carolina could recoup the lost money for teachers.
Aides to House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn said late Thursday that Sen. Jim DeMint has blocked the Columbia Democrat's legislative language that would restore $143 million in public education money intended for South Carolina.
The House on Thursday passed a third temporary funding measure — called a continuing resolution — to fund the federal government for the current fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
That measure, like its two predecessors, didn't contain the Clyburn fix even though Clyburn, the No. 3 House leader, said Democratic and Republican appropriators who negotiated the continuing resolutions had accepted it.
"The continuing resolutions have been pre-negotiated by the House and Senate," said Hope Derrick, a Clyburn spokeswoman. "During the negotiations for the (first) CR passed in September, it is our understanding that the South Carolina education language was not included because of an objection by Senator DeMint."
Derrick added: "The (DeMint) objection still stands, and it remains the reason it was not included in the CR that was passed by the House and sent to the Senate today."
In order to streamline the special funding measures, negotiators try not to include controversial matters that could stall them in either chamber.
DeMint vehemently denied that he is blocking the Clyburn fix.
"The baseless accusations from Congressman Clyburn's office are absurd," said Wesley Denton, a DeMint spokesman.
"As one of the top Democratic leaders and a former Appropriations Committee member, he holds great sway over how they will write the year-end spending bill, with huge Democrat majorities in the House and Senate," Denton said. "It's a convenient fiction to blame Republicans for a problem Democrats created and now evidently aren't capable of fixing, but Senator DeMint has not been part of these Democrat negotiations."
With the $143 million to save 2,600 public teaching jobs in South Carolina in peril, Clyburn, DeMint and Sen. Lindsey Graham were passing the buck and pointing fingers.
The stalled federal money — because of South Carolina's state budget cuts of $110 million in higher education funding — is caught up in the high-stakes spending and tax deal between President Barack Obama and Republican congressional leaders, and criticism of the accord by some lawmakers.
Until that problem is resolved, Congress won't decide how to fund the government for the next nearly 10 months.
Election-year politics prevented Congress from passing any appropriations bills, leaving lawmakers in their current bind.
Now, Democrats are trying to push through an omnibus spending measure while they hold large majorities in the House and Senate.
Republicans, by contrast, want to pass only the most necessary appropriations bills until they take over the House and hold more Senate seats next month in the new session of Congress.
Clyburn claims to have persuaded House appropriators to accept legislative language that would release the $143 million to South Carolina, but he says the Senate is blocking the deal.
The only thing that Graham, DeMint and Clyburn agree on is that Clyburn's claimed fix was excluded from three House measures to fund the federal government temporarily since the Oct. 1 start of the 2011 fiscal year.
The senators noted that they, along with all but two other Republicans, voted against the $26 state aid bill in August — but are now being asked to help correct unforeseen mistakes in what was a Democratic measure.
"Senator Graham recently received the proposed technical fixes, which should address the errors made by the Democrats in their drafting of the legislation," Kevin Bishop, a Graham spokesman, told McClatchy on Wednesday.
"In the Senate, no one is quite sure what the Democrats plan to do," Bishop said. "So at this time, we have no idea whether we will even have an opportunity to clean up the terrible mess the Democrats have created."
Clyburn, though, said Graham had pledged his help.
"I have spoken with Senator Graham, and he has assured me that he will work to ensure the language passes the Senate," Clyburn said Thursday. "I take him at his word."
Even if DeMint isn't blocking the Clyburn fix, he doesn't appear willing to help South Carolina obtain money he says would come from deficit spending.
"Neither Senator DeMint nor our staff has seen a proposal from Congressman Clyburn to amend the legislation Democrats wrote and rushed through Congress that excluded South Carolina," said Denton, DeMint's spokesman.
"Senator DeMint has consistently opposed the failed federal stimulus spending and teachers' union bailouts that have not created the jobs promised and will leave states with bigger budget shortfalls," he said.
State Education Superintendent Jim Rex has spoken with Clyburn in recent days about the problem, but Rex said he can't even get Graham or DeMint to return his calls.
"I talked with Senator Graham's staff last week," Rex said. "They indicated that Senator Graham was concerned about the issue and was working toward a solution. When he thought he had one, he was going to get in touch with me."
Rex is frustrated that four months after Congress approved $26 billion in extra Medicaid and education money for cash-strapped state governments, only South Carolina and Texas haven't received their shares.
After Obama signed the emergency state aid bill into law Aug. 10, South Carolina educators learned the state didn't meet eligibility requirements because it had cut higher education funding by $110 million to help close budget shortfalls.
Rex is baffled why the state's lawmakers haven't addressed the problem.
"If it doesn't get fixed, they will not only have fumbled the ball, but they will have lost the ball," Rex told McClatchy. "But I'm still hopeful they're going to find a way to make it happen."
The state aid measure Congress passed in August set tougher eligibility requirements for school funding than had the $787 billion economic-stimulus measure it approved last year.
The original stimulus bill used each state's combined spending on public schools and higher education as a threshold for getting extra money.
The August aid measure, by contrast, required states to have spent minimum amounts on both elementary, middle and high schools and, separately, on public colleges and universities.
The state budget cuts left South Carolina $110 million short of the spending threshold for higher education.
Clyburn's proposed fix would authorize the U.S. education secretary to grant a waiver enabling a state to use the older, less strict, funding threshold of combined spending on public schools and higher education.
South Carolina would qualify for the $143 million intended to save 2,600 teaching jobs if that more lenient requirement were used.
McClatchy Newspapers 2010