Sen. John Courson abruptly stepped down from his South Carolina Senate leadership post Wednesday, a move he hoped would forestall Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell's planned resignation later this week.
Courson, R-Columbia, said he decided to step down as Senate president pro tem - but not leave his Senate seat - after learning that McConnell still planned to resign his office Thursday. Senate members have asked McConnell to wait until the Legislature wraps up its work in two weeks. McConnell becomes president of the College of Charleston next month.
Courson has repeatedly said he won't leave his Senate seat to temporarily occupy the state's No. 2 spot, noting voters will elect McConnell's replacement in just five months.
Courson said he hopes his decision, which he said McConnell forced him to make, changes McConnell's mind. Without a lieutenant governor or Senate president pro tem, bills wrapped up in the legislative session's waning days may not reach Gov. Nikki Haley's desk because there will be no presiding officer in the Senate to sign them.
And there appears to be no senator willing to become president pro tem while the possibility of becoming lieutenant governor looms.
Every bill must be ratified. That means the House speaker and the Senate leader must verify through their signatures their chambers approved a measure. If the lieutenant governor is not available to sign off, the Senate president pro tem does so. But if Courson lends his signature while the office is vacant, that could mean he's automatically lieutenant governor. Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin said that's how he interprets the state constitution.
Courson's resignation may have stalled McConnell's resignation as hoped. Martin said late Wednesday that McConnell told him he would stay so as not to cause a constitutional crisis in the session's waning days.
McConnell could not immediately be reached for comment.
In the last week, both McConnell and Haley have said the lieutenant governor position should not stay vacant until January, which effectively means they agree that Courson should fill in.
Courson blames politics for their position. He believes Haley was provoked when he called for the ouster of her Department of Social Services director, Lillian Koller, who resigned Monday after months of criticism. Haley's spokesman has said the two issues are unrelated.
Courson believes McConnell's stance concerns a disagreement over efforts to attach a research university to the College of Charleston, which was expected to be debated again Wednesday in the Senate.
"If I'm the impediment - the reason he's doing this is because of me and the College of Charleston controversy - I thought it better to remove that and move forward," Courson said.
Courson said he resigned also to prevent a potential lawsuit. Haley said Friday the laws should be reviewed to see if they require Courson to step into the No. 2 post. Courson maintains they don't. The lieutenant governor's office has gone vacant six times in the last 135 years, most recently from 1965-1967.
The political wrangling resulted in the Senate putting a hold on the University of Charleston bill. Peeler successfully argued the tactics prove it needs further study. While the legislative session officially ends Thursday, a panel of House and Senate members would have two weeks to work toward a compromise.
"Threats have been made. Promises have been made. Parliamentary maneuverings have been made," said Peeler, R-Gaffney. "All I'm asking is to tell us what's in this College of Charleston expansion bill that's worth all of what we have endured as a body."
He said he will nominate Courson for pro tem again after the situation is resolved.
Courson, first elected in 1984, has been Senate president pro tem since succeeding McConnell in March 2012. McConnell reluctantly became lieutenant governor following the resignation and guilty plea of then-Lt. Gov. Ken Ard over campaign-spending violations.
Courson says this time is different, since no one is needed to preside over the Senate in the off-session and the position will be filled within six months.
Under the state's lines of succession, Courson would have been the person to assume the governor's duties, should something happen to Haley. With the president pro tem position vacant too, the next in line is House Speaker Bobby Harrell.
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