State lawmakers made it clear they want Gov. Mark Sanford to resign, but wouldn't recommend ousting him over his travels and trysts with an Argentine mistress.
A House panel by a convincing 6-1 vote rejected an impeachment resolution Wednesday and instead chose to formally rebuke Sanford. The measure says he brought "ridicule, dishonor, disgrace and shame" to the state he was twice overwhelmingly elected to lead. The panel said the governor had lost credibility, but they weren't ready to fire him.
"An impeachment proceeding will only add to the harm he has already done," said state Rep. James Smith, a Democrat.
What the governor will be able to accomplish in the coming months, however, is in doubt, with his term-limited departure set for January 2011. The censure measure's 7-0 vote almost guarantees it'll reach the House floor for debate in January. If it passes, the Senate would consider the rebuke.
Even before the affair, Sanford forecast his final year would be unremarkable. Long a critic of fellow Republicans who control the Legislature, he burned tremendous political capital unsuccessfully trying to prevent them from accepting $700 million in federal stimulus money for state schools. He took the battle to court and become nationally known as an anti-stimulus voice.
He left for Argentina soon after losing that fight.
Sanford knows the damage he's brought on himself. Once thought of as a potential 2012 presidential candidate, he instead became the only South Carolina governor to face an impeachment since Reconstruction.
Sanford has said he considered resigning after he returned in June from a five-day rendezvous with Maria Belen Chapur in Buenos Aires and tearfully confessed the affair, but friends persuaded him to stay.
He hit the road a few weeks later, apologizing to audiences and telling them they should help salvage a policy agenda that includes streamlining government and bringing jobs to a state that's persistently ranked among the nation's highest for unemployment.
He promised to work with Republican legislators after years of fighting with them.
After the committee's vote Wednesday, Sanford said his constituents helped him persevere.
"There were days in the last five months when I could hardly get out of bed, I didn't know exactly how you put the next step in front of the other, but it was their respective strength, their faith in me ... that allowed me to get back up and put that next foot in front of the other. I want to thank them for that grace and that kindness," he said.
His wife, Jenny, has moved out of the Governor's Mansion with the couples' four sons and is charting her own path. A book is in the works, and she has made it clear she's not standing by the man who disregarded her instructions to keep away from his lover.
The only tears shed at the impeachment hearing were by a legislator _ for Sanford's family.
"I can only imagine the pain that they have endured and will continue to endure," said a sobbing state Rep. Jenny Horne.
Sanford has been under scrutiny for months. Probes of his travel and campaign spending led to more than three dozen state ethics charges and the potential for $74,000 in fines. The state attorney general is reviewing the charges to see if they merit criminal prosecution.
Only eight U.S. governors have been removed by impeachment, and the only two in the last 80 years each faced criminal charges.
Horne said an indictment would have made a Sanford impeachment easy.
Instead, legislators were left with a mix of lesser wrongs:
_ Sanford admitting he'd led staff to believe he'd be hiking the Appalachian Trail when he was with Chapur.
_ A taxpayer-paid trip to Buenos Aires a year earlier that lawmakers saw as dubious. Sanford said it was then the affair became physical.
_ State planes used for political and personal purposes.
_ Sanford left the state with no one clearly in charge.
"We can't impeach for hypocrisy. We can't impeach for arrogance. We can't impeach an officeholder for his lack of leadership skills," said Rep. James Harrison, the Columbia Republican who headed the panel.
A proposed bill filed Wednesday would define the chain of command should a governor go missing again. The bill would put the lieutenant governor in charge during a public emergency if the governor is out of state and has been out of touch for 12 hours.
The impeachment resolution that failed still goes to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration next week. But state Rep. Greg Delleney, who sponsored the measure and was the lone vote for impeachment, said it would be difficult to pass.
"The political will is just not there," Delleney said.
Associated Press writer Bruce Smith in Charleston contributed to this report.