Instead, the lawmakers unanimously approved a resolution saying he has "brought ridicule, dishonor, disgrace, and shame not only upon Governor Sanford but upon this state and its citizens which rises to a level which requires a formal admonishment and censure."
Sanford has been under scrutiny since June when he tearfully revealed a yearlong affair. Ensuing probes of his travel and campaign spending led to more than three dozen state ethics charges and the potential for $74,000 in fines. His second and final term ends in January 2011.
"We can't impeach for hypocrisy. We can't impeach for arrogance. We can't impeach an officeholder for his lack of leadership skills," said Rep. James Harrison, the Columbia Republican who headed the panel.
State Rep. Jenny Horne, a Republican, sobbed as she spoke of Sanford hurting his family. "I can only imagine the pain that they have endured and will continue to endure," Horne said.
Sanford spoke to reporters in Charleston shortly after the vote and continued to insist he'd done nothing out of step with the conduct of other governors. He said he planned to spend his remaining months in office focused on improving the state's economy and added that his constituents had helped him persevere.
"There were days in the last five months when I could hardly get out of bed, I didn't know exactly how you put the next step in front of the other, but it was their respective strength, their faith in me ... that allowed me to get back up and put that next foot in front of the other. I want to thank them for that grace and that kindness," he said.
Only eight U.S. governors have been removed by impeachment, and the only two removed in the last 80 years each faced criminal charges.
Technically, the outcome of Wednesday's vote will be sent as a recommendation to a full House Judiciary panel, which could revive an impeachment effort. However, that is unlikely given the margin of the vote.
Sanford still faces further legislative votes on the official rebuke. He'll also be the subject of a State Ethics Commission hearing on 37 charges involving his use of state planes for personal and political trips, pricey commercial airlines seats and campaign money. The state attorney general is considering whether those accusations will lead to criminal charges.
Sanford's potential ethical missteps were uncovered in part by a series of Associated Press investigations. Lawmakers have said the ethics issues shattered the image Sanford had cultivated as a penny-pinching steward of the state's money.
What the governor may accomplish in the coming months is in doubt.
Even before the affair derailed potential 2012 presidential aspirations, Sanford forecast the final year of his term would be unremarkable. Long a critic of fellow Republicans who control the Legislature, he expended tremendous capital earlier in the year unsuccessfully trying to prevent lawmakers from accepting $700 million in federal stimulus money for state schools -- battling the money in court and becoming nationally known as an anti-stimulus voice.
He left for Argentina soon after losing that fight, and the panel that voted Wednesday debated how seriously to consider the governor's five-day absence during which his staff was led to believe he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. Legislators pushing for impeachment contended he was derelict in his duty.
"We have a governor forsaking, abandoning, deserting his office. We have a premeditated, intentional act where he abandoned his office in the state," said state Rep. Greg Delleney, a Republican who was the lone vote for impeachment. "He has lost all moral authority to lead this state."
Others contended there was no requirement for the governor to name a stand-in while he was away.
"If an emergency had occurred while the governor was gone the citizens of South Carolina would have had a government with the power to protect their health and safety," Harrison said.
Lawmakers in their meetings also focused on a state-funded trip in 2008 during which the governor's longtime friendship with Maria Belen Chapur turned physical. After he revealed the relationship this summer, Sanford reimbursed the state for part of the prior year's trip. He's maintained he traveled to Buenos Aires for economic development meetings following a dove hunting excursion elsewhere in that country and that the meeting with Chapur was an afterthought.
Critics contended Sanford steered the Commerce Department to get him to Buenos Aires to see Chapur and questioned how seriously any state business was taken while he was there.
"It was nothing but a ruse," said state Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia.
But he added: "An impeachment proceeding will only add to the harm he has already done."