BROOKSVILLE — As traffic on Spring Hill Drive zoomed by Tuesday through the soupy midday air, Martha Williams clutched an empty bottle in one hand and a sign in the other.
THE LOOPHOLE IS OUR NOOSE, the sign proclaimed in black marker on white poster board.
"It was in the pile," a smiling Williams said of the sign. "I can't take credit for it."
But the 46-year-old intensive care nurse from Dade City could take credit for driving over on her day off to join about 40 demonstrators who showed up at U.S. Rep. Richard Nugent's district office Tuesday to weigh in on the national debt ceiling debate.
When President Obama urged Americans in a speech Monday night to contact their members of Congress and urge them to compromise on the issue, members of MoveOn.org were already a step ahead of him. The liberal activist group announced earlier that afternoon that constituents would be gathering at lawmakers' offices to gauge their stances, voice concerns about an impending default and rally in the stifling summer heat.
The demonstrators came from throughout the sprawling 5th Congressional District, from Wesley Chapel to The Villages, Homosassa to Spring Hill. As some stood along the shoulder of Spring Hill Drive holding signs with slogans such as STOP THE WAR ON WORKERS and STOP CORPORATE WELFARE, others filed into Nugent's office eight at a time to relay a message through his district director, Shirley Anderson: Compromise in the debt ceiling debate by raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy, approve the pact through 2012 and don't touch Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Demonstrators said Nugent should protect the middle class by focusing on job creation, eschew draconian cuts urged by tea party ideologues, and stop opposing Obama just for the sake of defeating him in 2012.
"The moderate Republicans in the House are so intimidated by the tea party they can't think straight anymore," said Pat Hanley, a 64-year-old former schoolteacher from the town of Hernando in Citrus County who currently serves as secretary of the Citrus Democratic Executive Committee. "They're not thinking about their constituents who are depending on them."
Obama repeated his call Monday night for "a balanced approach" to the debt ceiling debate that includes large spending cuts along with revenue increases — among them a halt to Bush-era tax cuts for families earning more than $250,000 a year.
Nugent has said that tax increases for any bracket is "a non-starter," but he did support the GOP budget plan passed in the House earlier this year that closed some corporate tax loopholes. The former Hernando County sheriff was among the House members who voted last week for the GOP's "cut, cap and balance" plan that would raise the debt ceiling but also impose strict caps on all future federal spending and make it significantly tougher to raise taxes.
Brian Coleman, a 49-year-old small business owner from Clermont, called that a good political litmus test.
"To me, that's a really extreme bill," Coleman said.
Even a modest tax increase on the richest Americans would help put a significant dent in the debt, Coleman said.
As for trickle-down economics, "I'm not sure it's money trickling down on me," Coleman said.
Nugent raised the hackles of some constituents by telling the St. Petersburg Times last week that he hadn't heard from constituents demanding tax increases for the wealthy. Three demonstrators told a Times reporter Tuesday that they had called or e-mailed Nugent in recent months urging him to do just that.
Nugent released a statement a little before 1 p.m. Tuesday in response to a query from the Times about the demonstration.
"In my experience, there isn't much that Move On and I agree on, but preserving Social Security and Medicare for current retirees and those nearing retirement is something I think we can all agree on," Nugent said.
As for which of the debt ceiling strategies he supports, "I'm going through them as we speak," he said.
"The first thing I learned about Washington is not to accept numbers at face value — read the bill and understand where the numbers come from," he said. "The only thing I can tell you with certainty at this point is that both bills preserve benefits for current seniors and that's the first thing I look for."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.