BROOKSVILLE — As a rookie lawmaker, U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent figured he would have little say in the grinding process of democracy in Washington, D.C.
Then the former Hernando County sheriff arrived in the nation's capital with dozens of other new Republican House members amid a wave of anti-incumbent fervor and frustration with the growing federal budget deficit.
Now, as Congress is poised for its biggest budget battle in years, Nugent has placed himself on the side of the most fiscally conservative Republicans, who are pushing for cuts deeper than what even some GOP leaders wanted.
"I was told, when you're a freshman, you don't have a voice," Nugent said Friday. "Because we're such a large class, we do have a voice."
Nugent disputed headlines from last week that chronicled a divide in the party over the 2011 budget.
"Leadership had one number, and 80-plus Republican freshmen had a different mind-set, and the encouraging part is the leadership listened," Nugent said Friday.
Last week, the GOP leadership proposed $74 billion in immediate reductions for the remainder of this fiscal year to President Obama's 2011 budget, which was proposed but never enacted. The government is currently running on a stopgap funding bill.
Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, warned that the proposal could lead to layoffs of FBI agents and cuts to an array of grants and programs, such as NASA, health research and Pell Grants for low-income college students.
Party leaders noted that the current budget year started back in October and the government has been spending at last year's levels since then. That makes it harder to fulfill the "Pledge to America" that Republicans campaigned on last year, which promised $100 billion in cuts to Obama's budget.
But rookie Republicans didn't relent. And Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, the leader of the House Tea Party Caucus, demanded more at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference,
So did the Republican Study Committee. The group of more than 175 House members describes its purpose as "advancing a conservative social and economic agenda (and) a limited and Constitutional role for the federal government."
Nugent joined the study group when he took office, along with many of his freshmen colleagues,
So GOP leaders regrouped and on Friday unveiled a new proposal to reach the $100 billion mark. The spending proposal, though unlikely to pass in the Senate, would probably require job losses in government agencies.
It has to be done, Nugent said Friday morning before the specifics were announced.
"You're talking about a $1.5 trillion deficit," he said. "This is really still a drop in the bucket compared with what we have to do."
He acknowledged the budget would almost certainly mean cuts to programs in the 5th District, which includes all or portions of eight counties, including Hernando. The budget wouldn't bode well, for example, for the SubTropical Agricultural Research Station north of Brooksville, or the community block grants that help local governments improve and add infrastructure.
"You have to go back to what the core mission of the federal government is," Nugent said.
Nugent downplayed the role of the tea party in the debate within his own party.
"It has nothing to do with the tea party," Nugent said. "It has everything to do with America. I talk to a lot of people who aren't part of the tea party, and they are saying the same things."
Nugent and his freshman colleagues haven't been in office long enough to field calls from constituents angry about the effects of deep cuts. But as he did during an election campaign that led to easy victories in the primary and general elections, Nugent noted he has some budget-cutting experience.
The Hernando Sheriff's Office budget grew substantially over the first eight years of his tenure until the economy tanked and the County Commission demanded cuts. Some of the subsequent casualties included the DARE program and staffing at the new sheriff's substation in south Brooksville.
"Some of those were near and dear to my heart," he said. "A lot of people were upset. But that's why they pay us the big bucks. It's about leading."
But even Nugent acknowledged he's in uncharted territory, representing a diverse district of nearly 1 million people.
Meanwhile, veteran Democrats like Rep. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville, who saw their majority in the House evaporate last November, watch these developments with chagrin.
It's "ludicrous" for Republicans to favor tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and then push to slash programs and grants that help the neediest and spur job growth, Brown said.
The stopgap funding bill, called a continuing resolution, expires March 4. Extending that for the year would have helped inexperienced House members get their bearings before trying to push through draconian cuts, Brown said.
"People could learn the budget process and figure out the best place to trim," she said. "Those decisions should not be made without educating yourself."
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.