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Crawford: Deal's port project is sinking
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Gov. Nathan Deal has zoomed in on the project he believes will bring a more prosperous Georgia: dredging the Savannah River harbor.

The state wants to deepen the Savannah port by another six feet so that it can handle the larger ships that will be traversing an expanded Panama Canal in 2014. The price tag is $600 million, which the state probably could not afford to pay on its own.

Deal is hoping that Georgia can get the bulk of the money for the project from the federal government.

In pursuit of that goal, the governor went to Washington last week with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. There had initially been hopes that Reed's close political ties to Barack Obama might persuade the president to give a sympathetic hearing to Georgia's request for a little money to dig out the harbor.

It was no sale.

While the governor and the mayor were able to score meetings with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a sitdown with Obama could not be worked out.

It's commendable that Deal, a Republican, and Reed, a Democrat, have put aside their partisan preferences to work together on a project that could benefit all Georgians. In today's stormy political atmosphere, I wish there were more examples of this kind of bipartisanship.

Deal, however, is confronting some political hurdles he may not be able to overcome.

For one thing, there is the fact that a majority of Georgia's congressional delegation has fought and taunted the president at every turn since he took office a little more than two years ago.

Deal himself, while still a member of Congress, delayed his resignation from the U.S. House so that he could make a very public vote against Obama's healthcare reform program. Deal's House colleagues, Tom Price and Phil Gingrey, have been outspoken critics of Obama's health care reform initiative at every opportunity on the cable talk shows.

During the 2008 campaign, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland used a racially charged word to describe Obama when he remarked that the Democratic nominee was too "uppity" to be running for president.

Rep. Paul Broun has compared Obama's administration to Hitler and Nazi Germany. At a town hall meeting last February, Broun was observed chuckling along with the audience when one of the participants asked, "Who's going to shoot Obama?"

The chairman of the Georgia Ports Authority, which would administer the harbor dredging project if funds were allocated for it, is Bainbridge businessman Alec Poitevint. Poitevint is the former head of the Georgia Republican Party who is actively supporting GOP efforts to oust Obama when he runs for reelection in 2012.

That's politics, of course. Everyone understands that Republicans are going to oppose Democrats and Democrats are going to do the same thing to Republicans.

At the same time, it's probably unrealistic to think that a president is going to fork over $600 million for a harbor project after you've spent two years attacking his policies and making disparaging remarks about his ethnic background. That's just not going to happen.

Deal has another problem with the guy who replaced him in the House, Tom Graves.

Normally, if a president will not come across with the money for a local project, congressmen can put an "earmark" in the budget that bypasses the president and frees up the money. That process is even easier when you're a member of the House Appropriations Committee, which writes the budget bill.

Graves, who is an Appropriations Committee member, refuses to do any earmarking out of deference to his tea party supporters. He's not going to earmark money in the budget for the Savannah project, no matter how badly Deal and other Republican leaders want it.

"We don't think that it's over," Deal said after last week's Washington trip, holding out hopes that Georgia might somehow receive $70 million in the federal budget for the harbor work. "We think if we had $70 million, that's the figure we'd probably need to go forward on a timely schedule."

Deal is doing what all governors try to do, which is persuade the feds to help pay for a public project he considers important to his state. This one, however, may be a bridge too far.

Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays.

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