From Capitol Hill to the governor's office, Georgia officials sounded both stunned and defiant Tuesday after the Obama administration's new budget failed to recommend funding to start the $652 million deepening of Savannah's busy shipping channel — a project Vice President Joe Biden pledged just six months ago would get done "come hell or high water."
Gov. Nathan Deal vowed to jumpstart the expansion of the river channel cargo ships use to reach the Port of Savannah without financial help from Washington, using $231 million the state already has set aside for its share of the project. Deal seized on Biden's much-quoted "hell or high water" comment to retort: "It's more accurate to say the administration is going to put us through the former to get to the latter."
Like other East Coast ports, Savannah is scrambling to deepen its harbor to make room for supersized cargo ships expected to begin arriving after the Panama Canal finishes a major expansion as early as next year. Georgia officials are pushing hard to get construction started this year and were looking to President Barack Obama to seek significant funding for the project after the president touted the need for deeper water at U.S. ports during public appearances last year.
But the president's fiscal 2015 budget proposal released Tuesday contained just $1.52 million for the Savannah harbor, and that small amount was designated for preconstruction engineering and design. Even Georgia Republicans who are typically critical of Obama said they were shocked given the administration's public endorsements of the project as won that would boost U.S. jobs.
"I can't imagine what's going on with the administration except for some kind of politics," said U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, a Savannah Republican. "The president can talk something to death while jobs are sitting in the wings waiting to take place."
Georgia Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss issued a joint statement saying they were "deeply disappointed and frustrated" and blamed the Obama administration for holding up a project worth thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue.
"It is now clear they would rather pay lip-service to Georgians than deliver on their promises," the senators' statement said.
The federal government gave final approval to plans to deepen 30 miles of the Savannah River linking the port to the Atlantic Ocean in the fall of 2012. For more than 15 months afterward it remained stalled by Washington budget battles and final unforeseen bureaucratic hurdles.
The White House said Tuesday the Savannah harbor deepening was among many projects being held up because Congress hasn't finalized a water-projects bill containing provisions needed to move them forward. Georgia lawmakers insist language inserted into the recently passed omnibus spending bill allows the Savannah project to bypass waiting for the water-projects measure.
Both Obama and Biden have made speeches in the last year supporting improvements to U.S. ports to grow jobs at home and boost exports of U.S. goods. Savannah has the fourth busiest container port in the U.S. and the second busiest on the East Coast, having moved nearly 3 million cargo containers of imports and exports last year.
During an appearance on NBC's "Tonight Show" last August, Obama specifically mentioned Savannah as well as Charleston, S.C., and Jacksonville, Fla., as ports that needed deeper harbors to stay competitive as larger ships begin bringing goods through the Panama Canal.
"If we don't do that, these ships are going to go someplace else and we'll lose jobs," Obama told host Jay Leno.
A month later, on Sept. 16, Biden paid back-to-back visits to the docks at Savannah and Charleston delivering much the same message. The vice president told 500 dockworkers and dignitaries gathered at the Port of Savannah: "We are going to get this done, as my grandfather would say, come hell or high water."
Charleston and Jacksonville didn't get much financial support either. The White House budget seeks $2.26 million for the Charleston port and $3.15 for Jacksonville.
Biden was back in Georgia on Tuesday to attend a fundraiser for Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn in Atlanta. He took no questions from reporters during his visit.
Deal has asked state lawmakers for another $35 million this year to round out Georgia's 40-percent share of the harbor expansion cost. He said in a statement Tuesday he still expects Washington to pay its $391 million on the back end.
"We will begin dredging using state funds until the federal government lives up to its obligations in this partnership," Deal said.
Georgia officials say they're confident they eliminated final bureaucratic obstacles with language inserted in the omnibus spending bill that cleared Congress in January. Those provisions suspended an outdated spending cap that had kept the Army Corps of Engineers from moving forward. It also essentially reclassified the Savannah harbor expansion from a project considered to still be under study to one that's already under construction.
Georgia lawmakers had hoped those changes would spur the Obama administration to request construction funding for fiscal 2015. And they sounded dumbstruck Tuesday that it didn't happen.
Democratic Rep. John Barrow of Augusta said he's "incredibly disappointed" Obama left construction money for Savannah out of his budget proposal. "I share the frustration of my constituents that the expansion continues to be stalled by bureaucracy."
Georgia officials have been waiting for the Army Corps to sign off on a partnership agreement that would allow construction to start using the state's money. A spokesman for the Corps' Savannah district said Tuesday he could not provide an update on the status of that agreement.