WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama asked lawmakers Monday to spend $3.5 million to explore deepening the Charleston, S.C., port in the $3.8 trillion budget he sent to Congress for the 2013 fiscal year.
The new money for the Charleston port deepening study by the Army Corps of Engineers would come on top of $2.5 million the agency allocated last week for the same project.
Bill Stern, chairman of the South Carolina Ports Authority, said deepening the port from 45 feet to 50 feet is necessary to accommodate giant cargo ships that will arrive along the Atlantic seaboard after the Panama Canal widening is completed in 2014.
While Obama's budget is unlikely to pass Congress in the heat of an election year, Sen. Lindsey Graham said the "presidential earmark" would make it easier for Graham, a Seneca, S.C., Republican, to help appropriate the money to expand the port-deepening study.
Graham said he worked with House Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn of Columbia, Republican Rep. Tim Scott of North Charleston and Charleston Mayor Joe Riley to persuade Obama to request Charleston port study money for the first time in the fourth budget he's crafted since taking office in January 2009.
"I feel really good that working together, we put the Charleston harbor deepening on everyone's radar screen including the (Obama) administration," Graham said. "This is progress. We need to celebrate progress, but the budget as a whole is not going to see the light of day."
Scott, a tea party-backed former state representative who ran a fierce anti-spending congressional campaign, said the Charleston port is the type of smart investment the federal government should make.
"It has gone through a merit-based process to prove its importance to our nation and has obviously proven that worth not only to those of us in South Carolina, but to the president as well," Scott said.
"While there are many problems with the president's budget — tax hikes and spending increases, to name two — this is something he got right," Scott said.
Graham and other GOP lawmakers also criticized Obama's spending plan for the 2013 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, saying it would raises taxes and produce more than $1 trillion in new debt.
Obama's proposal includes $15.5 million for dredging of the Charleston harbor, but it has no maintenance money for the Georgetown harbor and little for other South Carolina waterways.
Elsewhere in South Carolina, Obama's budget seeks to spend about $807 million on nuclear waste cleanup at the Savannah River Site in Aiken County, plus almost $570 million to continue building a Mixed Oxide Fuel plant at the site to help convert 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium from Russia.
In less happy news for Charleston, Obama proposed shutting the Charleston Marine Support Facility at the former Charleston Naval Base.
The facility is the home port for two research ships of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration — the Ronald H. Brown and the Nancy Foster. Those ships would dock at Norfolk, Va., under a broader NOAA consolidation plan.
The National Weather Service's forecast office in North Charleston, also part of NOAA, would remain open.
The study to deepen the Charleston port would cost about $20 million, to be split evenly between the federal government and the S.C. Ports Authority.
If the study finds the project feasible, design, engineering and construction costs would bring the total price tag to $200 million, also divided between Washington and South Carolina.
Charleston is competing with Savannah and other Atlantic ports for deepening funds in an era of fiscal austerity.
Graham switched to the Senate Appropriations Committee in January 2011, giving up seats on the homeland security and veterans' affairs panels, in large measure to help secure funding to deepen the Charleston port.
It's become harder for lawmakers to fund such projects as both parties observe a moratorium on spending earmarks first championed by Sen. Jim DeMint, a Greenville, S.C., Republican.
Graham said he pushed for money to study deepening the Charleston port during several meetings with Vice President Joe Biden, a friend from Biden's days in the Senate.
Riley, the Charleston mayor since 1975 who has deep Democratic ties, spoke directly with Obama about the project, Graham said.
"Joe Riley, Clyburn, all of us working together — I just think it's a result of not taking no for an answer," Graham said. "I threatened to shut the Senate down."
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