After months of political wrangling about earmarks and federal spending, Charleston has landed crucial funding to study deepening the harbor for next-generation cargo ships.

As federal spending goes, it's just a little money -- $150,000 toward a project that could cost $350 million -- but the amount is not as important as the fact that it allows a feasibility study to begin this year.

"Without getting money in 2011 we would have lost another year," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, who joined Reps. Jim Clyburn and Tim Scott in a bipartisan conference call to announce the funding. "Between me, Jim and Tim, we talked to everybody in Congress about how silly it would be to not allow Charleston to move ahead in 2011," Graham said.

Not participating in the call was

South Carolina's other Republican senator, Jim DeMint, whose opposition to congressional earmarks has been seen as an obstacle toward getting funding for the port study.

"I appreciate that after we have ended earmarks, the corps chose to fund the study for Charleston port deepening based on merit instead of being forced to fund wasteful earmarks based on politics," DeMint said in a prepared statement later Tuesday afternoon.

The money for the study was included in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' national work plan for the remainder of the federal 2011 budget year, which ends Sept. 30. While DeMint described the decision as merit-based, the other members of the delegation described the political muscles they flexed in order to make others see the merits of the project.

Graham said that at one point he threatened to hold up federal nominations pending in the Senate. Clyburn, one of the top Democrats in the House, met repeatedly with Vice President Joe Biden, and freshman GOP congressman Scott told House leaders that he's for budget reform, but not for destroying job creation.

"We were able to convince the administration to go deeper into the (Corps' work) plan and allocate the funding," Graham said.

In Charleston, port officials and politicians cheered the funding announcement.

"It is more (funding) than we had heard, and we are happy about it," State Ports Authority CEO Jim Newsome said. "This is an important first step, but it's a marathon, not a sprint,"

The funding is a down payment on a multi-year study that could cost up to $20 million. Getting the whole project done -- deepening the harbor -- could take 11 to 14 years, according to the Corps, though Newsome said it could be finished in as few as 10 years.

The $150,000 in federal money would be matched with an equal amount from the SPA, and the combined $300,000 would be the funding available through the end of September.

"I am confident that the study the funding allows will ensure the future competitiveness of the Port of Charleston for a generation," said Mayor Joe Riley, who said he discussed the funding issue with Biden and President Barack Obama in January.

Congressional leaders will start working this week to get funding for 2012 included in the next federal budget.

"I'm very confident we'll be able to fashion a bipartisan plan that will allow this funding to continue," Clyburn said.

Charleston already enjoys one of the deepest East Coast ports, at 45 feet, but it would need to be deeper, about 50 feet, to accommodate the coming generation of cargo ships.

"There is no question that when you examine the merits of the project, it is very important for America and for the goal of doubling our exports," Scott said.

The Corps' feasibility study will consider how much deeper the shipping channel should be, and the many issues involved with going deeper, including risks to the freshwater aquifer that sits below the Charleston area, impacts on marshes, and risks to marine life.

"Those are issues that we just have to look at," Corps project manager David Warren said.

If the project moves beyond the study phase, the federal government would pay 75 percent of any design and engineering work on the project, and 40 percent of construction.

What happened?

The national work plan for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers includes $150,000 to begin a feasibility study on deepening Charleston Harbor to allow for larger cargo ships. The money will be matched with $150,000 from the State Ports Authority to fund work through Sept. 30.

Why is it important?

The money allows the study to begin, and gives the dredging project a toehold in the federal budget. The study could cost $12 million to $20 million, so more federal funds will be needed, but it's easier to fund a project that's under way.

What next?

Negotiations are under way for the federal budget that begins Oct. 1. Members of South Carolina's delegation will be seeking up to $1.2 billion to continue the study. The dredging project itself could cost $350 million, by some estimates, and could only begin after the feasibility study, and design and engineering work, are completed, which the corps estimates could take seven to 10 years.