- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 6, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina’s top senator is keeping his powerful leadership post, despite refusing to follow the line of succession to the largely ceremonial job of lieutenant governor if the U.S. Senate confirms Gov. Nikki Haley as United Nations ambassador.

Senators re-elected Hugh Leatherman as the chamber’s president pro tem 36-9 during Tuesday’s postelection organizational session. All nine nays came from his fellow Republicans.

“If you have a good quarterback, you need to keep that quarterback,” Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, said in nominating Leatherman, who, like him, is a 36-year veteran of the chamber.

No senator publicly challenged Leatherman.

Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster would replace Haley if she’s confirmed as the U.N. envoy of President-elect Donald Trump.

The state constitution has called for the pro tem to become lieutenant governor, although some argue that a 2014 constitutional referendum approved by voters should allow McMaster to choose his replacement now, even though that ballot measure said all changes would begin with the 2018 election.

Some lawmakers have objected to Leatherman shunning the line of succession, and the question may ultimately be decided by the state Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Leatherman has no intention of leaving the Senate and giving up his job as South Carolina’s most powerful politician, even temporarily, since it remains unclear exactly when or if Haley will definitely leave office.

Leatherman’s power comes from multiple roles. As finance chairman, the 85-year-old Florence Republican also controls the state budget and sits on various financial oversight boards.

As for who would replace McMaster, Peeler told his colleagues, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Peeler also offered a warning to his fellow senators: “Make sure you cross that bridge before you burn it.”

Leatherman also gave no indication about what he’ll do, and declined to opine about the constitutional questions involved.

“That will need to be sorted out,” he told reporters after the Senate adjourned. “I don’t think it really matters what I think. What matters is what people decide they’re going to accept or do something about.”

Peeler’s own support marks an about-turn.

In June 2015, Peeler opened up a special legislative session by asking Leatherman to resign the pro tem position immediately. Peeler said then Leatherman is capable of leading the Senate and being Senate Finance chairman, but not of occupying both roles simultaneously, as exhibited by the need for a special session to pass a budget. Leatherman refused to step aside then as well.

Senators first elected Leatherman pro tem in 2014, after then-Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell resigned to be president of his alma mater, the College of Charleston. Sen. John Courson resigned as pro tem to avoid succeeding McConnell, and senators then chose Democratic Sen. Yancey McGill to momentarily become pro tem - just long enough to take the oath as lieutenant governor and enable Leatherman to replace him. Only two senators voted that year against giving Leatherman the additional leadership role, saying it consolidated too much power.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said he didn’t go to the podium Tuesday to ask senators to vote against Leatherman - as he did two years ago - because it would’ve been futile.

However, Massey said his concerns over Leatherman’s power are “probably greater now than they were then.”

Also on Tuesday, the Senate adopted new rules that Massey says should make the Senate “more efficient.” House members frequently complain that the Senate is where major legislation dies.

Changes include preventing a single senator from indefinitely blocking debate on legislation advanced to the floor, and limiting senators’ ability to filibuster bills under debate.

Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia, said the changes are directed at Democrats and could backfire. He complained Democrats didn’t have input into the changes before they were presented Tuesday.

In response, Massey said Republicans hold 28 of the Senate’s 46 seats.

“While I certainly intend to communicate regularly” with Democrats and want them to be heard, he said, “we were elected to govern and that’s what we intend to do.”

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