- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2012

President Obama’s latest jobs initiative — a pledge to accelerate expansion plans for five ports along the Eastern seaboard — is getting rave reviews from an unexpected corner: a handful of Republicans usually sharply critical of the president but who have also fought hard in recent years for federal dollars to help ready their ports for the flood of shipping and commerce expected by the Panama Canal’s expansion.

At times, Republicans representing some of the East Coast ports in question have faced resistance from within their own party for requesting federal help.

But GOP lawmakers such as Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint of South Carolina support the accelerated government approval schedule for the port projects, which they say will be a boon for their state’s struggling economy. Mr. DeMint, one of the chamber’s most conservative members, backs the president’s plan despite working in the past to kill attempts to earmark money for the Port of Charleston.

“This is very good news and a recognition the rest of the country now understands what we’ve known all along — Charleston Harbor deepening is a critical project for our state, region and national economy,” Mr. Graham said. “It is a vital economic engine which must be deepened so it can handle 24/7 the new, larger post-Panamax ships coming online.”

Chris Crawford, a spokesman for Rep. Jack Kingston, a Republican who represents Savannah, Ga., the home to another port-expansion project, also applauded the administration effort.

“We’re definitely happy to get the attention and hope this will help speed along any regulatory bumps we might run into along the way,” he said.

GOP Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who famously heckled Mr. Obama in 2009 during a speech the president was giving on health care on the House floor, is also praising the president.

“The administration’s decision to help with the study is a step in the right direction,” a spokeswoman for Mr. Wilson said. “The sooner the expansion project is completed, and the lower the cost, the better.”

Even presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney supports streamlining the port-renovation process, although a spokeswoman did say Mr. Obama failed to make the plan a priority until the middle of his re-election.

“Unfortunately, President Obama chose to spend his term wasting tens of billions of stimulus dollars on green energy projects and high-speed rail while allowing the most important infrastructure projects to languish,” she said.

Other Republicans appear reluctant to go on the record praising Mr. Obama’s ports initiative during a presidential election year but are privately pleased with the administration’s commitment to accelerate the renovation projects.

Spokesmen for Mr. DeMint, as well as Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican who represents part of Miami, did not return repeated requests for comment. A spokesman for Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, another Republican who represents part of Miami, said her boss was too busy to discuss the topic.

When the widening of the Panama Canal is completed in 2014, larger container ships will be able to travel directly from Asia and the Indian subcontinent through the Panama Canal to East Coast ports, and trucks will be able to take the goods to areas in the eastern United States and the Midwest.

Right now, the larger ships must unload their contents in congested West Coast ports, and from there, the goods are brought east by train. Charleston and several other East Coast ports want to be ready for the new shipping commerce and the thousands of jobs it would likely spawn.

Along with ports in Charleston and Savannah, the Obama administration initiative announced on Thursday would modernize and expand three other major ports in Jacksonville, Miami, and New York/New Jersey.

The action is part of an executive order issued in March that charges the Office of Management and Budget with streamlining the government permitting and reviewing process for infrastructure projects. The seven projects at the five ports are the first of 43 projects planned.

• Susan Crabtree can be reached at scrabtree@washingtontimes.com.

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