First-term Republican Rep. Tim Scott of Charleston, S.C., says he's looking for "any way in the world" to get federal money to expand his hometown's aging harbor. It's the one way he won't pursue that's making some South Carolinians angry.
Scott, like his state's famously conservative senator, Jim DeMint, is among a new breed of tea party-backed conservatives who have sworn off "earmarks" _ the pet projects that lawmakers can write into spending bills for their districts. He won't ask for one, won't support one, doesn't even want to talk about it.
His opposition to earmarks helped get him elected last year in a conservative state where slashing government spending is a political battle cry. But he's finding that saying no can be tricky business for members of Congress, who are traditionally rewarded for bringing federal projects home.
The Charleston Harbor in particular _ a critical economic engine in a poor state _ is testing his resolve, just as local demands for highways, dams and other needs are challenging the anti-spending rhetoric from campaign trails across the country.
"I'm looking for any way in the world to fund it legally, ethically and morally," Scott said when asked about the project recently. "We've got to find a different way."
The chances of doing so are slim. President Barack Obama left the project out of his proposed budget last month while funding a handful of competing harbor projects elsewhere, including a fierce rival about 100 miles south in Savannah, Ga.
In years past, influential South Carolina lawmakers such as Strom Thurmond or Mendel Rivers would scoff at the budget and rewrite it to their liking, finding money for Charleston from a pool of money set aside for local projects.
The embattled earmark system can lead to imbalances in which small states such as Alaska or Mississippi get an outsized share of projects solely because they have senior lawmakers on spending committees who can overrule the national priorities identified by federal agencies.
But earmark advocates have long argued the flip side: that lawmakers know their states' needs best and that if they don't specify where money should go, decisions are simply left to bureaucrats and political appointees in the executive branch.
The dilemma is getting fresh attention in South Carolina after Georgia's port in Savannah won a small but important $600,000 budget line from the Obama administration _ essentially keeping the project moving through a bottleneck of competing projects.
The two Southern port cities, along with others across the country, are trying desperately to win federal funding to deepen their shipping channels to make way for the next generation of container ships.
"This is no bridge to nowhere," longtime Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., a Democrat, said of the harbor, referring to the infamous Alaska bridge project that helped spur the anti-earmark fervor. "Our nation needs efficient, modern ports and the state of South Carolina's economy is substantially dependent on our port being competitive."
Like many in South Carolina, Riley thinks the project is "stuck in the crosshairs of a political dispute" over spending and earmarks.
"We live in the real world of, `How do you get things done?'" he said. "I think it was very unfortunate and harmful to our state."
Some Republican lawmakers in Georgia and South Carolina seem to agree, saying the projects are so pivotal that they're risking conservative ire to fight for funding. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has split with DeMint and Scott, saying it would "mean devastation" for the state's economy if the harbor expansion doesn't get moving.
GOP Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson of Georgia signed a no-earmark pledge last year but have made clear they will make exceptions for the Savannah harbor _ the fourth-busiest U.S. container port. Even Jeanne Seaver, a co-founder of the Savannah tea party, said she would support an earmark for the Georgia project.
"We want less government spending and want to stop spending more than we're taking in," Seaver said. "But this creates jobs. It's not considered wasteful spending to me. It's going to create business."
"If it's an earmark, it's an earmark," she added. "I would support it 100 percent."
Such sentiment is becoming more common, with lawmakers angling to narrow the definition of an earmark so they can pursue funding for critical projects while holding to their campaign promises. Others such as DeMint and Scott are pushing for a new system altogether in which an independent commission would decide national priorities _ much like federal agencies are supposed to do now.
Regardless of the approach, controversy is sure to continue. As lawmakers know all too well, nearly every community has a clogged highway or antiquated water and sewer system that locals believe deserves federal help.
In the meantime, however, Scott and DeMint are standing by their positions.
"The earmark conversation is a moot conversation," Scott said.
Associated Press writers Russ Bynum in Savannah and Bruce Smith in Charleston contributed to this report.