SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) - Republican candidates for Georgia's open U.S. Senate seat debated Saturday whether Congress has pushed hard enough for deepening the Savannah harbor and whether the federal government should keep giving homeowners a break on flood insurance.
All seven contenders seeking the GOP nomination to succeed retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss shared a stage before a few hundred spectators at a school auditorium in Savannah with less than two months remaining until the May 20 primary. And some of their sharpest disagreements dealt with issues critical to the Georgia coast.
Each vowed support for the $652 million deepening of the shipping channel to the busy Port of Savannah, and accused the Obama administration of throwing up a roadblock in recent weeks that could delay construction from starting this year. Timing is critical because an expansion of the Panama Canal is expected to send supersized cargo ships to the East Coast as soon as 2015.
But the two candidates running as Washington outsiders said they were stunned that the harbor deepening still hasn't begun despite planning that started in the late 1990s.
``It's just another example of a lack of a sense of urgency'' by Congress, said David Perdue, the former Reebok and Dollar General CEO whose TV ads have portrayed the three congressmen in the race as whiny babies who can't get anything done.
Karen Handel, Georgia's former secretary of state, added: ``No one would get 17 years to deliver this project to their boss in the private sector.''
Their barbs got a bristling response from Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah, whose district includes the port. He promised the harbor expansion will get done and dismissed his opponents as latecomers to an issue Gov. Nathan Deal has called Georgia's top economic priority.
``Have you ever written a letter in support of it?'' Kingston asked. ``I've worked with two members on Congress on this stage but I haven't heard from anybody else. ...Where were they when we met with the White House, over and over again? Or when we met with the four federal agencies that have to sign off on the project? Can they even name the four agencies?''
The Savannah congressman also found himself at odds with his fellow House members Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey when candidates were asked about the future of federal subsidies for flood insurance. Congress voted two years ago to draw down the subsidies over time after Hurricane Katrina and other disasters left the insurance program with a $24 billion deficit.
That triggered giant leaps in premiums up to 25 percent for current homeowners and even more for new buyers of coastal properties and the outcry prompted Congress this month to roll back or delay some of the harsher impacts.
``The problem with flood insurance is the same problem we have with health insurance, agricultural crop insurance, student loans and everything else,'' said Broun of Athens. ``It's the federal government getting involved in things it shouldn't.''
Gingrey of Marietta said it's unfair for taxpayers who don't live in flood-prone areas to subsidize those that do. He said Congress' initial attempt at fixing the problem was correct but once constituents started complaining lawmakers ``didn't have the guts to stand by what they'd done right the first time.''
``We have kept giving subsidies to people who keep rebuilding in a flood plain and we keep requiring them to have flood insurance,'' Gingrey said.
Art Gardner, a Cobb County attorney also in the race, said he didn't know enough about the insurance program to have an opinion. Derrick Grayson, a network engineer for Atlanta's mass transit system, said he opposed the federal government having a role with both flood insurance and the deepening of Savannah's harbor, which is a federal waterway.
The Savannah showdown was the fifth Senate debate sponsored by the Georgia Republican party. Two more will be held before the primary April 19 in Augusta and May 10 in Columbus.