U.S. Sen. Tim Scott has the jokes down pat in his new job.
Still in his first week in the Senate, the North Charleston Republican teased Columbia Rotary Club president J.T. Gandolfo Monday about the car dealer’s support of Notre Dame’s college football title hopes before discussing how to reduce the deficit.
“It might take hitting the wall at 90 mph more than once,” Scott told a few hundred Rotarians Monday. “The United States’ greatest threat to our national security isn’t Iran or North Korea. It’s our debt.”
Embarking on a statewide listening tour, Scott also took questions from the audience.
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One questioner suggested voters who receive government benefits rejected GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney because they did not want to go back to work.
The new senator delicately answered that he wants to reduce dependence on government assistance, including backing efforts to cut the number of weeks the jobless can receive unemployment checks, while reminding his listeners that most of those receiving benefits are getting Social Security.
“Most people want a better life and we need to motivate people in that direction,” said Scott, South Carolina’s former 1st District congressman.
Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Scott to succeed Republican Jim DeMint of Greenville, who resigned to head the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Scott, the first African-American U.S. senator from the South since Reconstruction, was sworn in Thursday.
He will get an early test on a couple of key national security votes. President Barack Obama Monday nominated former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., for secretary of defense and counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to become the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Of Hagel, Scott said he is “probably not heading in his direction right now, but things could change. I want hear his response to the criticisms.” Republicans have questioned Hagel’s support for Israel and fear the former senator would support defense cuts.
Brennan “served well it seems” over a 25-year CIA career, Scott said. But Scott added he wants to know more about accusations that Brennan was connected to waterboarding of prisoners after 9/11. The Obama Administration said Brennan opposed waterboarding.
Scott said he thinks it is unfortunate that some groups focus on his race.
Last week, NAACP president Benjamin Jealous said Scott did not support civil rights, citing his “F” grade on the group’s 2011 legislative report card. Scott said he does not see how opposing collective bargaining and stricter environmental regulations, two topics of the report card, is anti-civil rights. He said he wants to focus on creating jobs and balancing the budget.
“I am probably the end product of the evolution of South Carolina,” Scott told reporters after the speech. “For me to have a discussion about race really is a distraction from the real conversation.”