Democrats heave sigh of relief as Savannah Port dredging draws near

That sigh of relief you hear isn't just from Savannah leaders celebrating the impending $706 million deepening of their port. It's also coming from Georgia Democrats wary that the White House's handling of the project could hurt them in November.

President Barack Obama this morning signed HR 3080 into law, clearing the last legislative hurdle to deepen Savannah's harbor and waterway from 42 feet to 47 feet. The project has been in the works for more than a decade and seemed a certainty when Vice President Joe Biden visited Savannah last year and proclaimed it would happen "come hell or high water."

Things got a little soggy in March, though, when the Obama Administration stunned many here by declaring the project not yet ready to go. Georgia leaders scrambled to make sure the project was on track, while the top Democrats on the ballot struggled to explain the seeming change of heart.

At the time, Jason Carter, who is challenging Gov. Nathan Deal, said the Republican incumbent's "stick in the eye" approach to the White House may have hurt Georgia. And Michelle Nunn, the Democratic nominee for an open Senate seat, was pressed to explain her appearance with Biden at a fundraising event shortly before the administration's move.

Republicans quickly ratcheted up the pressure on the White House, saying they simply wanted Obama to live up to his promise. Deal's administration quietly explored options to float the full cost of the project with the hope of getting reimbursed by the federal government later.

Federal lawmakers, though, were able to hammer out an agreement last month, and Obama signed it into law with a brief ceremony this morning.

That led Carter's campaign sent out a statement declaring that "cooler heads prevailed" and thank federal lawmakers for working across party lines to secure the deal.

"Our Congressional representatives did great work breaking through the partisan gridlock in Washington to hold the federal government accountable to its commitment to Georgia," said Carter, who said other leaders had a "knee-jerk reaction" that could have threatened the project.

Nunn's reaction echoed her post-partisan pitch. She painted the delays as part of a broader dysfunction and expressed hope that Washington doesn't put any more roadblocks in the way.

"The fact that it took more than a decade to approve what everyone considers an essential project for our state and the future of our economy is an embarrassing testament to our broken political process," she said.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, one of the key money-chasers for this project, said the deepening would help position Atlanta as the "logistics hub of the Western Hemisphere." And Deal's camp said that Georgia will be ready to begin work by the year's end because of proactive leadership while others were advocating a "wait-and-see approach."

"We’re all celebrating today," said his office. "Now it’s time to get to the real work."

It's easy to see why the deepening has galvanized both parties like few other issues in Georgia. It's widely acknowledged as Georgia's single most crucial economic development project, and it's aimed at helping the bustling port handle the larger ships that could soon be calling on the port after the Panama Canal's widening is finished next year.

There's another politician who is particularly happy with today's signing. Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah is locked in a bitter runoff for the GOP Senate nomination against businessman David Perdue, who is waging an anti-incumbent outsider campaign.

For Kingston, who sent out a release with a reminder that he's been pushing the dredging since 1999, today's signing provides a counterpoint: It takes insider contacts with key Washington figures to pull off a deal like this one.

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.