BROOKSVILLE — When the bipartisan fiscal cliff deal provoked an unusual public split among Republican House leaders, U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent sided with the dissenters.
The Spring Hill Republican, along with most of his GOP colleagues in the House, revolted against the compromise bill after a hectic day of wrangling. Nugent joined conservative lawmakers who lamented the lack of spending cuts to go along with the tax hikes included in the bill.
The opposition threatened to further delay a solution as global markets looked on. Unemployment benefits for 2 million Americans hung in the balance.
"Every vote's a tough vote," Nugent said Thursday, a few hours before he was sworn in for a second term. "You weigh the pros and cons, and then you stand up."
Steve Zeledon, chairman of the Hernando Democratic Executive Committee, called Nugent's stance "irrationally ideological."
"He just proved he is a worthy contribution to our dysfunctional Congress," Zeledon said.
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Signed by President Obama on Thursday, the final product averted the cliff but, as Nugent and others put it, kicks the can down the road. It pleased neither conservatives nor liberals.
The legislation — dubbed the American Taxpayer Relief Act — extended most of the Bush-era tax cuts but will raise tax rates on incomes over $400,000 for individuals and $450,000 for couples.
The measure delayed for two months across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester. It did nothing to address the debt ceiling that must be raised by the end of February to keep the country from defaulting on its financial obligations.
The Senate approved the bill on a vote of 89-8 despite complaints from liberals that Obama had given way too much in the deal. The measure won votes from Republican supporters who have been ardent opponents of tax increases.
Once the Senate bill came to the House, Nugent joined an unsuccessful effort to add significant spending cuts. House members then reluctantly agreed to a simple yes-or-no vote on the Senate-passed version.
Nugent said principle, not fear of blame for tax increases, guided his "no" vote.
The House months ago sent the Senate proposals to tackle the impending tax increases and budget cuts, but the chamber didn't offer any counterproposals to debate, he said.
"That's the way things are supposed to work," Nugent said. "Play some pingpong. It's not supposed to be, 'Let's put some last-minute, pathetic junk together and push it through because we have to.' "
At one point on Tuesday, Nugent's wife Wendy called and relayed a message from their son Kyle: Stand for your principles and do the right thing. If it raises taxes on me, I'll pay them.
In other words, hold firm on the demand to address the nation's debt by bringing spending in check.
"This is coming from a 25-year-old flying helicopters for the Army," Nugent said. "That's the kind of comments we got from constituents calling and emailing us."
All three of Nugent's sons are in the U.S. Army, and the sequester threatened deep cuts to the military. Nugent said delaying that was an obvious benefit of the bill. So were the extension of most tax cuts and raising the minimum income levels subject to the alternative minimum tax.
Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the party's 2012 vice presidential candidate, supported the bill, while Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the party's whip, opposed it.
Five of 19 Florida House Republicans voted yes: Mario Diaz-Balart, Bill Young, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Ander Crenshaw and Vern Buchanan.
"While this bill has its flaws, it immediately and permanently cuts taxes on 98 percent of the American people and 97 percent of small businesses," Diaz-Balart, of Miami, said in a statement.
That's the kind of attitude Nugent and his colleagues should have had, Zeledon said. The risk of delaying emergency unemployment compensation, he said, was particularly egregious.
"He showed a complete disregard for people who would have lost those benefits," Zeledon said.
All told, Democrats voted 172-16 in favor while Republicans votes 151-85 against.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was one of the Senators who voted no.
Nugent released his own statement Wednesday.
"President Obama said he wants a balanced approach, but all taxes and no reform of our out-of-control spending isn't balanced," he said. "The tax increases that the President asked for won't even cover the increase in our interest payments from this year to next."
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Now, Nugent said, the conversation can turn to tax reform and spending.
Some ideas he'd support: Cutting the number of tax brackets and deductions, and lowering the corporate rate while closing loopholes.
He has also said that raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67 should be on the table.
As a recent appointee to the House Armed Services Committee, Nugent will have a say in any cuts made to military spending.
The defense budget is not a "sacred cow" and is a place to look for savings, Nugent said. He noted, though, that the defense budget was cut by $487 billion last year.
Asked if he would support using the debt ceiling as leverage in the upcoming debates, Nugent invoked a combat analogy.
"You don't tell your enemy you'll never use military force," he said.
But, he added, "I think that's about the only leverage Republicans have."
Information from the Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. On Twitter: TMarreroTimes and HernandoTimes.