WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim DeMint may be one of the biggest critics of President Barack Obama, but both took heat from South Carolina lawmakers Tuesday over their refusal to seek funding for the first phase of a project to improve the port of Charleston.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham criticized Obama for failing to include in the budget he sent Congress on Monday a $400,000 Army Corps of Engineers study that would be necessary before South Carolina's chief Atlantic port could be deepened to accommodate larger cargo ships.
"It's imperative that the federal government authorize the deepening of the Charleston harbor to save the South Carolina economy from ruin," Graham said. "If this port does not get deepened, there will be economic chaos for state of South Carolina."
Graham and his aides said cars, tires and a range of products from BMW, Michelin and other companies across South Carolina go through the Charleston port.
Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn, an Obama ally, blamed DeMint and GOP Rep. Joe Wilson for the crucial project's absence from the president's spending plan, saying they declined to sign a December congressional delegation letter to Obama requesting the money.
It would cost $300 million over a decade to make the Charleston port 50 feet deep, with the federal government paying about $120 million, but the project can't advance without authorization based on the Corps of Engineers study.
"There are eight members in the delegation," Clyburn said. "Two members of the delegation refused to sign the letter. That means the delegation was not unified. I talked with (the White House Office of Management and Budget) about the possibility of getting funds for Charleston. It was always made very clear to me that the delegation needed to be unified on this."
Graham led the effort to write the Dec. 3 letter, a copy of which was obtained by McClatchy. DeMint and Wilson didn't sign it.
"We are requesting your administration include funding in your Fiscal Year 2012 budget submission to Congress for the Port of Charleston's post-45-foot harbor-deepening project," the letter said.
"Due to the upcoming expansion of the Panama Canal, and your administration's stated goal of doubling exports from the U.S. over the next 10 years, it is imperative that this project move forward in a timely manner," it said.
Graham and Clyburn signed the letter. DeMint said he didn't sign it because Corps of Engineers officials with whom he'd met had made it clear money for the Charleston port wouldn't be in Obama's budget because it's a new project. Wilson declined to say why he didn't sign the letter.
DeMint said he's pursuing an alternative route to help the Charleston port.
"Congress must pass legislation to reform the Army Corps of Engineers that will eliminate their backlog of wasteful earmarks, let them focus on true priorities and allow states like South Carolina to keep the taxes collected at our ports to use in our own state," DeMint said.
DeMint, who's led a drive to eliminate congressional earmarks, has said he'd introduce a bill to change how Corps of Engineers projects are funded.
DeMint said he and his aides have been meeting with officials from state government, the South Carolina Ports Authority and the Corps of Engineers to discuss the possibility of private funding for deepening the Charleston port.
Partisan wrangling prevented Congress from passing most appropriations bills. The Corps of Engineers is currently being funded at 2010 levels, shutting out the Charleston port project and another in Georgetown, S.C.
Rep. Tim Scott, a tea party-backed Republican elected in November, also criticized Obama's failure to seek the funding in his 2012 budget request.
"This is not just a disappointing decision for the state of South Carolina, but for our country," said Scott, who represents Charleston. "Both the Georgetown port and the Charleston port are strategically located to serve the shipping needs of the Southeast region of the United States."
Scott said he is talking with House committee chairmen about the possibility of securing funds for the two ports.