CASTLE DALE, Utah – Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz fiercely opposed a debt-limit bill that took a significant swipe at the nation's deficit and had no new taxes, bucking the GOP leadership at nearly every turn.
So did Chaffetz get catcalls for his defiance at a town hall in this heavily Republican rural Utah town? Hardly. The two-term lawmaker heard applause, attaboys and thank-yous from the nearly 50 people who gathered at a natural history museum on a Monday morning.
Polls show a nation evenly divided over last week's emergency legislation that averted an unprecedented government default, cut spending by more than $2 trillion and raised the debt ceiling by nearly the same amount. But among tea partyers, who hold considerable sway within the GOP, the bill was highly unpopular, with nearly two-thirds arguing that the deal hammered out by President Barack Obama and congressional leaders did not go far enough in slashing government spending.
"One of the most powerful words in the English language is 'no,'" said 72-year-old Jerry Stotler of Ferron, Utah, who attended Chaffetz's town hall. "The tea party has failed to use their power of 'no.' If they would've just stood strong on their principles, this (compromise) wouldn't have happened."
Republican resistance to the bill wasn't lost on Chaffetz, who is weighing a 2012 challenge to six-term Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch — another vote against the debt-limit bill. And it had to register with Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who is looking to replace retiring GOP Sen. Jon Kyl, and Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., who hopes to oust Democratic Sen. Jon Tester. Flake and Rehberg were "no" votes, too.
In fact, while House Republicans overwhelmingly backed the legislation — 174 voted for it — several who have set their sights on the Senate opposed it, arguing that the bill was packed with budget gimmicks, lacked sufficient spending cuts and delayed harsh decisions needed to put the nation on the right fiscal track. They rebuffed their leaders, especially House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who negotiated with Obama and secured a major concession from the Democratic president — no tax increases.
"With $14 trillion in deficit spending, we need game-changing legislation," Chaffetz has said of his vote. The debt-limit bill wasn't it, he added.
Rehberg, in a statement, called the new law "well-intentioned" but "little more than business as usual for Washington." Flake said it was the "age-old trick in Washington" of producing a 10-year budget with deep cuts occurring in the later years.
Flake said the bill should have had stronger language on amending the Constitution to require Congress and the president to produce balanced federal budgets. The bill provides that the House and Senate only have to vote on such an amendment by the end of the year. Approval would require a two-thirds majority in both houses. Three-fourths of the state legislatures would then have to ratify it.
"We should have passed some form of cap and balance, or at least if we're giving up other things ... have something to signal to people across the country and to the markets that we're serious about this deficit," Flake said in an interview with The Associated Press. "And I just don't view this deal we signed as serious."
Among his constituents in the solidly Republican district east of Phoenix, "the overwhelming responses I hear are, 'This is not a good deal, you should have cut more,'" said the six-term congressman.
With the Treasury Department announcing Wednesday that the U.S. budget deficit has topped $1 trillion for a third straight year, the clamor to slash spending is certain to grow louder among tea partyers and conservative Republicans unhappy with the debt-limit bill. GOP lawmakers seeking re-election next year, or looking to move up, know their vote will resonate with voters in 2012.
"If you're a Republican up for election next year — especially if you're running for the Senate — you have to think hard about Republican primary voters, who oppose the debt deal," said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College.
"Politically, a 'no' vote is a lot safer than a 'yes' vote," Pitney said.
This is especially true in Utah, where the GOP Senate nominee is decided at a state convention that's far more insular than a primary. In spring 2010, tea partyers led the way in sacking longtime conservative Sen. Robert Bennett at a party convention. Republican Mike Lee, with the support of the tea party movement, won the Senate seat.
Chaffetz had four town halls on tap this week, with only one in his congressional district as he looks ahead to a possible Senate bid. Among the people who turned out, he got high marks for resisting the leadership.
"What he says is backed up by his votes," said Brian Dawes, 40, of Castle Dale. "I want our representatives to be bold and willing to stand strong, instead of just trying to get re-elected."
Chaffetz may get several other spending votes. The budget runs out on Sept. 30 and Congress will have to decide on another spending bill in the face of a government shutdown.
The debt-limit legislation establishes a "supercommittee" of 12 lawmakers who will try to come up with at least $1.2 trillion more in deficit cuts over the next 10 years, including possible cuts in entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security as well as revenue from tax increases. The House may vote on that plan.
Chaffetz said he couldn't back a measure with more taxes.
"We're not one good tax increase away from prosperity," he told the town hall.
Cassata reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Amanda Lee Myers in Phoenix contributed to this report.