Senate passes surprise plan

Beaufort would anchor new congressional district

06/29/2011 12:00 AM

03/02/2012 8:00 AM

The odds increased Tuesday that the federal government will draw South Carolina’s congressional districts, including the state’s new 7th District.

A coalition of rebel Republicans and minority party Democrats in the state Senate approved a surprise redistricting plan Tuesday that creates a new 7th District that is centered in Beaufort County, running from Williamsburg to Jasper counties. Under the plan, Charleston and Horry counties would remain in the 1st District.

The S.C. House has approved a plan to put the new 7th District in the northeastern corner of the state, including Horry and the Pee Dee region. Leaders of the GOP-controlled Senate had hoped to approve the same plan.

The Senate’s surprise plan, proposed by Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, is not expected to win the House’s approval, and the Senate is unlikely to agree to the House plan.

The impasse increases the odds that a three-judge federal panel will have to step in and redraw the state’s congressional districts, said Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston.

“We’re on a course to gridlock,” McConnell said Tuesday. “There’s still hope (to pass a legislatively created redistricting plan), but we suffered a major setback today.”

McConnell said the Grooms plan, which he opposed, is not what the public wants, according to public hearings held around the state.

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, who also opposes the Grooms plan, said he was surprised a group of 10 Republicans joined forces with 14 Democrats to derail an Horry-centered 7th District.

“It has a Republican sponsor,” Martin said of the plan the Senate approved, introduced by Grooms. “But it’s a Democrat plan.”

Democrats likely would fare better in the case of an impasse between the Senate and House, both controlled by the GOP. Many politicos think a panel of federal judges or the Justice Department would insist on creating a second congressional district in South Carolina that is majority African-American, one of the Democratic Party’s most loyal Palmetto State constituencies.

Several Democratic senators were mum Wednesday on whether court intervention is their long-term strategy.

Republicans who backed the Grooms plan said they were doing what was best for their voters.

Grooms said the plan keeps more counties whole, including those he represents, within congressional districts. He also said his plan increases the odds of electing S.C. conservatives to Congress.

“I do not want my plan to be the cause of an impasse,” Grooms said. “A legislatively created plan is my goal.”

He said the Horry plan broke up too many counties and other communities of interest. “I do believe it’s headed to court no matter what.”

The Grooms plan, which subsequently passed the Senate 22-20, would:

• Leave 38 counties whole within congressional districts, including Lexington and Kershaw counties.
• Split eight other counties into two districts, including Richland County. Richland currently is split between the 2nd District, represented by U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a Springdale Republican, and U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat.
• Keep Clyburn’s 6th District majority African-American at 50.49 percent, keeping it in compliance with a previous court decision.

McConnell said the Senate could take up a revised redistricting plan today that is closer to the one the House and some senators prefer.

Otherwise, a conference committee of House and Senate members could convene to try and choose between the dueling plans, created by the House and the Senate. Failure there could lead to an impasse and federal intervention.

While the General Assembly is scheduled to finish its work this week, it could stay in session to complete redistricting, McConnell said. New lines need to be in place and federally approved by the time the Legislature and U.S. House are up for election again in November 2012.

Any plan approved by the General Assembly and Republican Gov. Nikki Haley also must get an OK from the federal Justice Department because of the state’s history of racial discrimination against minorities.

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