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Georgia lawmakers don’t like deal but see few options

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House was not pleased with its New Year’s Day present from the Senate: A bipartisan deal to undo the “fiscal cliff” of tax hikes and across-the-board spending cuts that did not include desired cuts to federal spending.

But with the cliff’s effects already kicking in and the Senate giving a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum, House Speaker John Boehner forced a vote on what appeared to be the only chance to avoid a recession or a market crash. Most of the Georgia delegation could not swallow it and voted no.

The final tally was 257-167, with most Republicans voting against it – shattering typical practice for Boehner working to pass a bill only with “the majority of the majority.”

All eight of Georgia’s Republicans voted against the bill – breaking with the state’s GOP senators, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, who voted for it just after the ball dropped midnight Tuesday.

Among Democrats, John Barrow of Augusta voted no, while Sanford Bishop of Albany, David Scott of Atlanta and Hank Johnson of DeKalb County voted yes. Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta did not vote; he returned home after his wife died Monday.

The Republican opposition rested in not getting enough spending cuts.

“It’s the spending aspect of the bill that’s the problem for me, “said Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, who said he wished spending provisions such as extended emergency unemployment benefits would have been offset with cuts elsewhere. But he added, “There’s some concern that if you send it back to [the Senate] with an amendment, that the country’s in limbo for several days.”

Rep. Johnson, D-DeKalb County, said he wished leaders had come together on a long-term grand bargain. The deal postpones across-the-board spending cuts for two months, setting up another fight that will also include the nation’s borrowing limit. Still, Johnson said, “The vice president did a good job negotiating this deal. It may be the best that we can expect.”

Vice President Joe Biden, who struck the deal late Monday with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, visited House Democrats on Tuesday to rally support. Atlanta Democrat David Scott was sold.

“We’ve got the kind of deal that Americans can be proud of because there is a very, very serious hunger among the American people to see Democrats and Republicans come together on something,” he said. “And we’ve got something here.”

Many Georgians remained opposed to it. Republicans Tom Graves of Ranger and Paul Broun of Athens declared they were solid “no’s.” Coweta County Republican Lynn Westmoreland said he was surprised the Senate passed the bill 89-8 — with both of Georgia’s Republican senators, Chambliss and Isakson, voting yes.

“That was kind of a shock to us that they didn’t stand for some spending cuts, so we’re dealing with that right now,” Westmoreland said.

Lawrenceville Republican Rep. Rob Woodall was walking the halls clutching a report from the Congressional Budget Office that illustrated many members’ concerns. According to the nonpartisan CBO, the deal would add $3.97 trillion to budget deficits in the next decade, compared with current law. Current law includes big tax hikes and spending cuts that lawmakers say they do not want, though. And the vast majority of that deficit impact ($3.63 trillion) comes in the form of tax cuts that Republicans generally like.

But Republicans wanted cuts from other programs to offset the impact of the spending provisions, which also include maintaining Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors and putting off across-the-board cuts for two months.

“I don’t think there’s anyone in the seventh district of Georgia who wants me to trade away good policy for America in the name of expediency because the Senate has run us up against this deadline,” Woodall said.

Rep. Jack Kingston, a Savannah Republican, summed up the attitude with sarcasm when asked if he would support the deal: “I don’t know. I love senators so much that it’s hard to vote no on anything they do.”

The beloved senators had mostly skipped town. After voting after 2 a.m. Tuesday, Isakson was at the airport a few hours later and home in Cobb County in time to watch the Georgia Bulldogs play. Chambliss was on his way out Tuesday night.

Isakson noted that President Barack Obama moved considerably from his original tax demands and said making the George W. Bush-era tax cuts permanent was a major victory.

“The net effect of that vote was a ($3.63) trillion reduction in taxes for 99 percent of American taxpayers,” Isakson said. “There was a lot in it for everybody, but the main thing that’s been missed by most of the media … these are all permanent changes. Congress would have to pass an act to change the taxes put in place.”

A big battle on spending cuts is ahead, as the nation nears its statutory borrowing limit. Republicans will seek big budget savings in exchange for their votes to raise the “debt ceiling,” as they did in 2011.

“This is what Obama wanted,” Chambliss said of the tax increases. “And now we get serious about spending and entitlement reform because that’s what we want and it’s our turn.”

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