BROOKSVILLE — Bill Tompkins looked his sheriff-turned-congressman in the eye Thursday morning and told him he should have stuck to his guns in the recent debt ceiling debate.
Three days earlier, U.S. Rep Rich Nugent joined 268 fellow House members voting to pass a bill that calls for $2.4 trillion in federal budget savings over the next decade, and raises the debt ceiling through the end of 2012.
While the deal helped the federal government avoid a calamitous default on its debts, it did not go far enough for Tompkins, a 64-year-old Spring Hill retiree attending Nugent's town hall meeting in Brooksville.
"I think the (Republican) Party is losing its convictions, the sense of what the party is supposed to be about," Tompkins said. "We're compromising too much. I take your vote as a compromise. If we're going to cut the budget, cut the budget, don't just reduce the size of the increases."
"I get it, 100 percent," Nugent replied. "I really do."
Nugent had already admitted to the roughly 80 people packed into the City Council chambers in City Hall that the vote had "stuck in his throat." But he said the bill, though not perfect, is a start toward reining in spending and features a "game changer" — a requirement for Congress to vote on an amendment to the Constitution requiring a balanced budget each year.
He said he was confident the House would pass the amendment and that the pressure is mounting for the Senate to do the same.
Of Florida's 19 House Republicans, five voted no. Nugent acknowledged that lawmakers were caught between unhappy people on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
He said conservatives who thought the bill didn't go far enough were calling him and Rep. Allen West, who had been a tea party darling, "traitors" for supporting it. Others who considered the cuts draconian chided him for giving into tea party "jihadists" and "terrorists" who "had a gun to my head."
"When people start name calling, they're losing the argument," Nugent said.
"We made a tough vote," he said later in the meeting, "but in the end I think it's going to put us on a sustainable path for the future."
Nugent hastily scheduled nine town hall meetings throughout the 5th District, which includes all of Hernando and most of Pasco counties, after Congress voted to adjourn for its August break. He held one in Land O'Lakes on Wednesday attended by about 80 people. He headed to Brooksville Thursday afternoon and Spring Hill that evening.
"Trust me, it would have been nice to take the week off and go on vacation, but I felt it was more important to be here and look people in the eye and say, this is why I did what I did," he said.
During a roughly 25 minute presentation, Nugent ticked off the House's accomplishments, such as voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act and passing a continuing resolution that cut $45 billion in spending. He chided the Senate for failing to pass a budget of its own.
After that, Nugent took questions and comments.
A couple of speakers praised the push for the balanced budget amendment, calling it the necessary shackle to limit the federal government's spending.
Asked about his position on tax reform, Nugent noted he is a co-sponsor of the Fair Tax bill and said he also would support a flat tax.
"Any sustainable change in our tax code is what we need to do," he said.
When one woman questioned the logic of signing conservative activist Grover Norquist's pledge not to raise taxes, Nugent bristled.
"I didn't sign it for him," he said. "I signed a pledge for folks like this gentleman over here to know my feelings in regards to tax increases."
Retired schoolteacher Sandra Shorter told Nugent she worried about the shrinking middle class and about how tax reform and deep budget cuts would affect someone like her.
"Each person has to think of what you're personally willing to give up," said Shorter, 67, of Brooksville. "For me to give some of this up means a lot more because I lived on a teacher's salary than to someone making two hundred, three hundred thousand a year."
When a speaker expressed anger over the ability of corporate behemoths like General Electric to exploit loopholes to avoid paying corporate taxes, Nugent noted that the budget the House passed earlier this year closed some of those loopholes.
Asked when Americans could expect to go back to work, Nugent said Congress has to focus on lowering the tax rate and easing regulation. Pressed to address Americans who can't pay rent and are surviving on food stamps, Nugent replied, "Washington tries to be all things to all people, but we're out of money. Something's got to change dramatically."
Carolyn Zivkovic, a member of the Hernando County Tea Party, left the meeting grumbling about Nugent's performance during his first seven months, especially the debt ceiling vote. The 64-year-old Brooksville resident supported Nugent's primary opponent Jason Sager, who'd garnered tea party support.
"Obama will reign again in 2012 because Republicans are wimps," she said. "Jason would have never voted for that."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]