WASHINGTON — The highest-ranking African-American member of Congress on Friday accused Southern governors who oppose economic stimulus spending of indifference to the plight of poor blacks who might benefit from the federal money.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, amplified earlier statements that the governors' hesitation in accepting stimulus money had insulted him because "these four states are in the heart of the black belt."
Clyburn singled out Republican Govs. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Rick Perry of Texas, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Haley Barbour of Mississippi for criticism.
The four governors have said that they might turn down their states' shares of the $787 billion stimulus bill that Congress passed last week — with almost no Republican support — and President Barack Obama signed into law Tuesday.
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Clyburn said the measure reserved some money for census tracts in which more than one-fifth of the residents had lived at or below the federal poverty level for the last 30 years. He said that 12 of South Carolina's 46 counties qualified for the targeted aid, all along the impoverished Interstate 95 corridor.
"Now the (South Carolina) governor says, 'I don't want to accept the money,' " Clyburn told CNN. "That's why I called this an insult. That's why I said this is a slap in the face; because a majority of these counties are, in fact, inhabited by African-Americans."
Sanford, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said that he and Clyburn held different views of Obama's plan to jolt the economy through massive government spending combined with tax cuts.
"Representative Clyburn and I disagree on this," Sanford told Fox News on Thursday. "He thinks it's a good idea. I think it's a horrible idea."
Clyburn's comments, after recent controversies over a New York Post cartoon and remarks by Attorney General Eric Holder, suggest that race remains a sensitive topic in the United States a month after its first black president was inaugurated.
Sanford's spokesman, Joel Sawyer, said that Clyburn "is no stranger to playing the race card" and added: "Spending money at the federal level that we do not have represents a future tax increase on all South Carolinians, regardless of their color."
Sanford was "still looking at the stimulus package to determine what our options are, and whether to accept or reject some, none or all of this money," Sawyer said.
Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh mocked Clyburn.
"I thought this (stimulus money) was designed to spur the economy," Limbaugh said. "But Mr. Clyburn here is letting us know that (it) was intended to go to black people, and if the governors aren't going to take it, then they are racist."
When Clyburn was asked whether he was accusing Sanford and the other three governors of racism, he responded: "No, I've never used that word in my life. I'll not use it now."
Clyburn, though, evoked the civil rights era. He said that a 1982 amendment to the Voting Rights Act had made it clear that prosecutors didn't have to prove intentional wrongdoing to enforce the law.
"Sometimes, you may turn around too fast and slap me in the face," Clyburn said in a separate interview aired on MSNBC. "You didn't intend to do it. I'll still be slapped in the face."
Not all Republican governors who are skeptical of the stimulus package are Southerners. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty also have criticized it, among others.
The governors oppose using hundreds of billions in deficit spending to revive the economy.
Rep. Steve Buyer, an Indiana Republican, said Clyburn's comments disappointed him.
"I consider Jim Clyburn a friend," Buyer said Friday in an interview. "For him to play a race card is wrong. Even economic scholars disagree with the stimulus package."
Clyburn used his leadership post to insert two provisions in the stimulus bill aimed at bypassing governors who oppose it.
One authorizes a state's legislature to request stimulus money if its governor fails to do so within 45 days of the bill's enactment. The second steers $40 billion to local school districts under federal funding formulas weighted toward poor communities.
Every Republican in the House of Representatives and all but three Republican senators voted against the stimulus bill, saying that it would inflate the federal deficit while failing to create enough jobs or jolt the economy.
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