COLUMBIA — Hugh Leatherman was re-elected Senate president pro tem on Tuesday, but lingering questions about Statehouse succession remain.
The 36-9 vote came a week after Leatherman, a Republican state senator from Florence, told colleagues he had no intention to succeed Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster once Gov. Nikki Haley is confirmed as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Former Majority Leader Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, nominated Leatherman to retain his post, despite calling for Leatherman to resign the position in June 2015 over concerns then that too much power was being held by one lawmaker.
"What we need here in the Senate, for our team to be successful, is to have a great quarterback," Peeler said.
Peeler left vague the timetable about what happens next.
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," he said.
Leatherman used the same language when similarly asked what the future holds.
Peeler said the Senate should follow the normal succession with the president pro tem ascending to the lieutenant governor spot in case of a vacancy. The Constitution was amended in 2012 by referendum to let the governor appoint the second in command.
Peeler said the ability for a governor to appoint a successor does not take effect until 2018, as the law states. Enabling legislation passed in 2014 omitted the 2018 effective date, which may become grounds for a court challenge.
A primary benefit of the pro tem position, besides setting the agenda, is making appointments to several boards and commissions, including one of three Senate members to conference committees. Those groups hash out compromises between House and Senate versions of bills.
Many see the president pro tem position, coupled with Leatherman's position as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee that helps craft the state budget, as too much power.
One possible path out came from Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, who said that when McMaster succeeds Haley he will step up to serve the remaining two years of the lieutenant governor's term since Leatherman, 85, will not. Bryant narrowly won his primary this June for a fourth term.
Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, wouldn't discuss future Democratic support for Leatherman should he seek the president pro tem post again in the coming weeks when McMaster moves up.
"I think the Senate will come together and reach a reasonable resolution and solve that issue and move forward," Setzler said.
Leatherman received unanimous support from the body's 18 Democrats.
Several tri-county Republicans joined Majority Leader Shane Massey of Edgefield and Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort in opposing Leatherman. Charleston area Sens. Sean Bennett, R-Summerville; Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms; and Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, voted against Leatherman. Newly elected Sens. Wes Climer, R-York; Rex Rice, R-Pickens; William Timmons, R-Greenville; and Greg Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach, voted in opposition to Leatherman. Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, voted present.
Leatherman told the body he plans to focus on education, infrastructure and building a strong economy in the upcoming legislative session that begins Jan. 10.
Senators also voted along party lines, 28-18, to change some of the rules on considering legislation. One senator can no longer hold up or kill a bill by placing a minority report on it after it comes out of committee. Bills assigned special order status, a priority designation that roads funding and ethics reform bills received last year, will now be debated ahead of other bills on the calendar.
Republicans say the change will help move major bills through faster, as will measures allowing senators to end bill-delaying filibusters.
Across the hall, House members spent the day re-electing almost all of their previous leadership. Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, and Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope, R-York, retained their roles, respectively. Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, remains minority leader for the Democratic Party.
GOP Caucus leadership shifted slightly. Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, was elected to become the next majority party leader, taking over for Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville. Bannister served as majority leader for four years.
Simrill said that in addition to shaping policy decisions for the Republican Party, he looks forward to working with the Democratic Caucus on issues including the state’s pension system and crumbling infrastructure.
“It behooves us all to work together when we can,” he said. “Isolation is not the answer. One of the things by having 80 (Republican) members, you can control the board. We don’t want to do that. What we want is input. Every district in South Carolina is equally important."
Maya T. Prabhu contributed to this report.