COLUMBIA - A bill that would establish the Lowcountry's first comprehensive research university passed the S.C. House easily Tuesday, two days before a deadline that would have likely killed it for the year.

The bill passed the House 98-5, said Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, a sponsor of the bill. Bills that are not passed by either the House or Senate before the end of the session Thursday generally are not considered by the other.

The bill, pushed by Merrill and Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, originally called for the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina to be merged. But a group of House members assembled to work on the issue backed off that idea and instead endorsed a newly-expanded University of Charleston within C of C. The college's liberal arts programs would not be affected.

While a University of Charleston already exists and offers some post-graduate degrees, the new school would be authorized to expand graduate offerings, including Ph.D.s, to fill specific workforce needs for the Lowcountry and the state, lawmakers said. Leadership at both MUSC and the College of Charleston, which are also directed to find more ways to collaborate under the measure, have embraced the plan.

Broad support for the bill stemmed from the proposed new school's economic focus, Merrill said. "It's a jobs bill as well," Merrill said. "It's one of the first times that we've seen the business community and the higher education community work in conjunction."

Merrill and Stavrinakis had been criticized for introducing a bill that would merge C of C and MUSC. In the end, the process produced a compromise agreeable to those on all sides. "Where would we be had we not chosen that route?" Merrill asked.

The bill now moves to the S.C. Senate for consideration. While there are few days left before the legislative session is scheduled to end on June 6, Stavrinakis said he hopes senators will see that the bill should not be controversial. Both institutions agree with it and the business community across the state also wants to see a major research university in the Lowcountry, he said.

"It's kind of hard to figure out why anybody would be substantially against it," Stavrinakis said.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.