Originally created 03/15/04

Senators walk independent paths



AIKEN -- In his last lap around the congressional track, retiring U.S. Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings is putting on a political clinic about meeting the expectations shouldered by a Palmetto State politician in Washington.

Political pros say the five Republicans and the lone Democrat aiming to succeed Mr. Hollings might be wise to pay close attention.

In the past two weeks, the South Carolina Democrat has shown the defiantly independent streak South Carolinians love to see in their leaders, a willingness to buck the party line in favor of parochial interests and a readiness to reach across the political divide and team up on an issue with his junior partner, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Like a shortstop and a second baseman working a double-play ball, the Senate colleagues have both pushed legislation aimed at staunching the loss of manufacturing and textile jobs to free-trade compacts and the onslaught of imported goods from China and other countries.

And like smooth masters of the Palmetto State political game, they're both focused on correcting a home field disadvantage - South Carolina has lost 57,700 manufacturing and textile jobs since January 2001, when President Bush took office, U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics show.

More than 2,000 of those were lost in January of this year, part of the worst consecutive streak of South Carolina job losses since the Great Depression.

"There's an independent streak that both of them have," said Andy Davis, Mr. Hollings' press secretary. "They may disagree on broader issues, but they're always taking care of South Carolina."

Mr. Graham, born in an Up‚state textile town, made the first Palmetto play on free trade late last year, co-sponsoring legislation with U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., that would slap a 27 percent tariff on all Chinese imports unless that country stops manipulating its currency to give its goods a lower price tag. This measure is in line with Mr. Graham's record of opposition to pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and serves as another example of his willingness to buck Mr. Bush.

Mr. Hollings matched that about 12 days ago with a proposed amendment that would close a loophole in the international tax code that gives a break to corporations that ship jobs overseas. This initiative falls in line with Mr. Hollings' long-standing opposition to unfettered free trade and meshes with two other bills he has sponsored that would give tax breaks to manufacturers who keep jobs in America.

Neither of the two senators' latest proposals stands much chance of passage, but both serve to highlight the connection between free-trade pacts and domestic job losses, said Augustine Tantillo, the Washington coordinator for the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition.

"Legislation like this stirs the pot and puts pressure on the administration to do something," said Mr. Tantillo, who grew up in North Augusta. "We are grateful to people like Sen. Graham and Sen. Hollings for putting these issues in play and saying manufacturing can't be ignored."

Free trade and job losses aren't the only issues on which Mr. Graham and Mr. Hollings have either taken the same stand or bucked the preferred position of their parties. Both men voted against the prescription drug benefit added to Medicare, a measure backed by Mr. Bush but deemed too expensive by both South Carolinians.

Both men are hawkish on defense, a popular stance in a state with a strong fighting tradition and a lot of military retirees.

Mr. Graham, an officer in the Air Force Reserve, favors expanding America's military manpower. He also pushed for expanded military benefits for reservists and members of the National Guard on active duty. With 35 years of service on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mr. Hollings has been able to steer both military and nonmilitary pork toward South Carolina.

Last week, he muscled a piece of legislation out of the Sen‚ate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee aimed at protecting children from televised violence.

His "safe harbor" amendment would require the Federal Communications Commission to determine whether ratings and V-Chip technology shield children from violent programs; if not, the legislation would require the FCC to prohibit violent programs when children are most likely watching.

With this legislation, Mr. Hollings seems more like a values-focused Republican than a member of the same party as former President Clinton, who assiduously courted Hollywood money and support.

For his part, Mr. Graham - like Mr. Hollings a former prosecutor - is lukewarm on tort-reform measures, as much a part of the Republican mantra as cutting taxes and banning abortion.

All of this shows that both Mr. Hollings and Mr. Graham eye Washington through a decidedly South Carolina lens, continuing Strom Thurmond's tradition of political independence .

"Knowing how South Carolina works and knowing how Washington can work for South Carolina, without bringing in unwanted change, is the stripe of a winner," said Blease Graham, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina.

This is part of a larger tradition of Southern Democrats, particularly senators, who formed an independent voting bloc that would side with either party, depending on the issue.

At best, party loyalty was bought and paid for, said Mr. Graham, and ended on matters of racial equality.

"These Southern senators would support certain party initiatives if federal money was sent their way and it was left up to the states to deal with race," he said.

Reach Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1395or jim.nesbitt@augustachronicle.com.