COLUMBIA, S.C. – Rep. Floyd Spence of South Carolina, who during his 30 years in Congress was a staunch critic of big government but a strong advocate of increased military spending, died Thursday. He was 73.
Craig Metz, the congressman's spokesman, said Spence had been in critical condition since he underwent surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain Aug. 9 at St. Dominic-Jackson Memorial Hospital in Jackson, Miss.
Spence was known for his amiable ways — and for a rare double-lung transplant he underwent in 1988. Earlier, as a state legislator in 1962, he became the first Democrat in the state General Assembly to defect to the Republican Party.
Spence became chairman of the House Armed Services Committee when the Republicans took control of the House in 1995 but had to give it up in January because of House rules that limited chairmanships to six years.
"I make no bones about the fact my No. 1 priority is defending this country," he said in a 1998 interview.
He remained active on the panel this year, taking over the chairmanship of its procurement subcommittee and working to forestall a possible move by the Pentagon to drop a decade-old strategy of being prepared to fight two major regional wars simultaneously.
"If we change it, we confuse a lot of people — friends and allies," Spence told Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld at a hearing in June.
"I am deeply saddened by the loss of my friend Floyd Spence," President Bush said late Thursday. "He was a leader of great courage and determination. ...
"As a Congressman, he will be remembered as a true friend of the men and women in our armed services and a steadfast servant of his fellow South Carolinians."
Gov. Jim Hodges praised Spence's service to his country.
"His tireless efforts on behalf of our national defense are a testimony to his enduring will to serve and to triumph in the face of adversity," said Hodges, who will call for a special election to fill Spence's seat.
Spence drew his passion for the military from his own experiences. After graduating from the University of South Carolina in 1952, Spence was commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Navy.
He returned to South Carolina and earned a law degree, before being elected as a Democrat to the state House of Representatives in 1956. In 1962, he furthered the development of the two-party system in South Carolina when he switched to the GOP.
"He will be remembered for having the foresight and the courage to switch parties," said Blease Graham, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina.
Spence was elected to the state Senate in 1966. He served as the Senate's minority leader and as chairman of the Joint Senate-House Internal Security Committee.
He was elected to the U.S. House in 1970. He maintained one of the highest voting attendance records, but opponents often criticized the lack of his own legislation.
"He was the voice against the big Washington government," Graham said. "That's why his record is as obscure as it is. He's not going to be introducing federal legislation."
At age 60, Spence had a double-lung transplant after years of battling emphysema. At that time, lung transplants were rare. The lungs came from an 18-year-old man who died in a motorcycle crash.
"I feel like I've got to live two lives," he said afterward. "I've got to justify what his lungs are for me. ... I want to live for him, too."
A decade later, his kidneys began to shut down because of the anti-rejection drugs used for the lung transplant. He received a kidney transplanted from his son David in May 2000.
David was one of four sons of Spence and his late wife, Lula. After his lung transplant, he seized the chance he called "a miracle" to marry 37-year-old Debbie Williams in his hospital room. She survives, as do David and his other sons, Zack, Benjamin and Caldwell.