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Jim GallowayJim Galloway

Without Port of Savannah cash, bipartisanship turns to bi-paranoia

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Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, left, and Gov. Nathan Deal speak to reporters after meeting with members of Georgia’s congressional delegation on Capitol Hill to discuss deepening the Port of Savannah in 2011. AJC file

For four years, Republicans and Democrats in Georgia have politely held hands when it came to courting Washington and its money to help pay for the deepening the Port of Savannah.

Our efforts at kumbay’all were written up in international journals. Doctoral theses presented the Great Georgia Peace as an alternative to both Washington gridlock and the United Nations. Rumors abounded of a Savannah baby christened Nathan Kasim Smith.

It all seems so 2013 now.

Twenty-four hours after a White House decision to deny long-promised cash for Georgia’s effort to attract ever-bigger ships, bipartisan peace was swept aside by paranoia.

The state Capitol was beset by Republican fear that the port decision had been delayed until September, so that President Barack Obama could grant the boon with Michelle Nunn, his nominee for U.S. Senate, at his side.

On a morning talk radio show, U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah, one of Nunn’s many Republican rivals, agreed with a questioner who suggested that the snub might be payback for Gov. Nathan Deal’s refusal to expand Medicaid as encouraged by the Affordable Care Act.

“I think there are some hardcore politics involved,” said Kingston, who has been a key player in the dredging push.

State Sen. Jason Carter, as he qualified as the Democratic candidate for governor, also drew a dotted line to the Republican incumbent. “You have a governor who has played Washington politics at every opportunity, and tried to put a stick in the eye of the administration,” Carter said. ”That clearly contributed to what happened. Absolutely.”

To which Deal responded with a heavy dose of sarcasm. “Surely to goodness, [Carter] wouldn’t say the head of his own party is stooping to partisan politics,” the governor said.

The White House has quietly pointed to congressional dithering over a water bill as a cause. Which may be the case. For if you believe this to be a premeditated slight, you also have to believe Obama sent Vice President Joe Biden to Georgia on Tuesday to serve as a rumble strip for MARTA buses – instead of raising cash for Sam Nunn’s daughter.

This is the same Joe Biden who said on his last trip to the state that the port funding would occur come “hell or high water.” And the same Joe Biden who, two weeks ago, told U.S. Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson that funding was a sure thing.

“That’s why we’re so upset about this,” Chambliss said.

Outright subterfuge would also mean Obama was willing to undercut Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed – whose access to the White House has served as the linchpin of his bipartisan partnership with Georgia’s Republican governor. On Tuesday, Reed just happened to be at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, run by Obama confidante David Axelrod.

Reed, caught flat-footed, on Tuesday issued a statement indicating his continued faith in the Obama administration’s good intentions toward Savannah, and characterizing the absence of federal funding as a temporary setback. But the mayor has said nothing else.

Political campaigns aren’t forensic crime units. They don’t need to solve the mystery of the Port of Savannah’s bad, awful week in order to react.

Our governor has announced a go-it-alone approach that will appeal to tea partyers and (some) business types alike – and will mesh neatly with his efforts to isolate Obamacare in Georgia.

Though she was slow to respond to the port brouhaha – perhaps an attempt to avoid embarrassing Biden as he helped her raise Atlanta cash – Michelle Nunn will use the debacle to put air between herself and Obama when she officially becomes a Senate candidate on Thursday.

“That’s the kind of inefficiency and obstructionism that we need to get rid of in Washington,” Nunn said in a statement issued Wednesday morning. “The president should immediately allow the Corps of Engineers to move forward with the deepening of the port.”

If not, Congress should do it, she said.

If the lack of federal funding for the Port of Savannah poses a political danger, the three Republican members of Congress in the race for U.S. Senate — Kingston, Paul Broun of Athens, and Phil Gingrey of Marietta – may be the most exposed.

The Great Georgia Peace initiative, which has kept Deal and Reed arm-in-arm, has been made necessary by the tea partyers who have gained so much influence within the Republican party.

In the old days, a Congress that didn’t agree with White House priorities simply loaded its own projects into the budget, in a bit of horse-trading.

But Republicans, particularly in the House, have placed such bargaining out of bounds – a self-imposed restriction on their own influence.

“Because, under the House rules, this is an earmark. And so for us to place something in the budget which is not in the budget already – it’s not allowed,” Kingston said in that radio interview.

Kingston and his colleagues will have to explain that, while the expansion of the Port of Savannah may be the most important economic development project in the state, it’s not crucial enough to break faith with the tea party.

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