Congress

In latest vote, SC Democrat Joe Cunningham continues Mark Sanford’s legacy of ‘no’

Democrat Joe Cunningham speaks during his victory press conference at the International Longshoremen’s Association hall in Charleston, S.C., Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018. U.S. House candidate Cunningham used a personal touch and concern for local issues like offshore drilling to beat a Republican in conservative South Carolina.
Democrat Joe Cunningham speaks during his victory press conference at the International Longshoremen’s Association hall in Charleston, S.C., Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018. U.S. House candidate Cunningham used a personal touch and concern for local issues like offshore drilling to beat a Republican in conservative South Carolina. The Associated Press

Opposition to offshore drilling was once the defining policy issue linking Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham to his predecessor, Republican Mark Sanford, in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District.

Now they can add another area of agreement to their list: a dislike for rampant government spending.

Cunningham was one of 16 U.S. House Democrats on Thursday to vote against a budget deal that would help avert major government spending stalemates for the next two years by raising federal spending by a total of $320 billion — while doing nothing to address the national deficit, expected to top $1 trillion this federal budget year.

“People back home just don’t want the government to be spending like drunken sailors,” said Cunningham of the agreement closely negotiated by congressional Democratic and Republican leadership and the White House.

If Sanford was still serving on Capitol Hill, he would have been one of 132 U.S. House Republicans to rebuff the agreement.

“Is this the art of the deal?” Sanford, who is considering challenging Donald Trump in the 2020 Republican presidential primary on a platform of fiscal restraint, scoffed in a tweet directed at the president this week.

The budget agreement passed in a 284-149 vote.

Cunningham won’t be joining a Sanford presidential exploratory committee anytime soon, but he can use their agreement on the budget deal to his advantage.

One of the most vulnerable Democrats up for reelection next year, Cunningham can show fiscally conservative voters that his position on spending is in keeping with a conservative tradition in the swing district.

“In our district, people are concerned about our government spending,” Cunningham told The State on Thursday morning. “We hear about a handful of issues (from constituents) and this is definitely one of them, that our spending is increasing and increasing.”

As government spending goes up, Cunningham continued, future generations — his 17-month-old son included — are left to pay off the debts.

Cunningham also can use his vote as another example of his willingness to disassociate himself with Democratic leadership, a defense against national Republicans’ plan to tie him to Democrats’ left-leaning agenda.

In June, in a similar foil to his opponents, Cunningham helped lead a charge to pass a bipartisan border security bill progressive Democrats trashed as inadequate for addressing poor conditions for undocumented immigrant families being held at the U.S.-Mexico border.

He was more severely scolded by activists back home, however, for being just one of six Democrats last week to oppose a minimum wage hike to $15 an hour.

“I think he’s pandering to conservatives,” Katie Preston, co-chair of Indivisible Charleston — a local affiliate of the national anti-Trump activist organization — said of Cunningham.

Cunningham is unapologetic for his votes.

“Putting ‘Lowcountry over party’ wasn’t just a saying,” Cunningham said, alluding back to his 2018 campaign slogan. “We’re putting it into practice.”

Tom Barton contributed to this report.

Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where her reporting on South Carolina politics appears in The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.
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