By PAUL C. BARTON, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- The Middle Tennessee Republicans who opposed the "fiscal cliff" legislation left themselves open to criticism they were denying permanent tax relief to 98 percent of Americans, analysts said Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Rep. Jim Cooper of Nashville, one of only 16 House Democrats to oppose the bill, said he wanted "some vegetables" -- i.e. spending cuts -- to go along with making permanent the tax cuts for the middle class passed under former President George W. Bush.
The comments came in the wake of congressional votes Tuesday to avert the fiscal cliff -- the feared combination of deep federal spending cuts and across-the-board income tax cuts that would have kicked in automatically this year without action.
The House and Senate approved legislation that postpones the spending cuts for two months while allowing income taxes to increase only for individuals making more than $400,000 a year and families making more than $450,000.
It preserved the tax cuts enacted a decade ago for those who make lesser amounts.
"This locked in tax relief for the vast majority of Americans," said Gabe Horwitz, policy analyst at Third Way, a moderate Washington think tank. "That no vote is saying they opposed locking in the tax cut for the middle class."
Middle Tennessee lawmakers who voted against the bill, in addition to Cooper, were Republican Reps. Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood, Diane Black of Gallatin, Scott DesJarlais of Jasper and Stephen Fincher of Frog Jump. They were among 151 Republicans, more than 60 percent of the caucus, that voted no.
Most, along with Cooper, cited the failure to deal with meaningful spending cuts.
Some re-emphasized that point Wednesday rather than looking at their votes as a denial of tax relief for the middle class.
"Congressman DesJarlais strongly believes that we do not need to raise taxes on anybody. Rather, we must make substantial spending cuts and force the government to live within its means," said Robert Jameson, the congressman's spokesman.
Blackburn made a similar point.
^"@I don't support raising taxes on anyone," she said in a statement, adding the bill " does nothing to restrain spending, adds to our annual deficit, and increases our debt by nearly $4 trillion over the next decade."
And Black said: "While I strongly support the permanent extension of middle class tax relief, this legislation unfortunately allows taxes to go up on many families and small businesses and kicks the can down the road on deficit reduction."
Fincher did not respond to questions about whether his vote could be seen as denying tax relief to the middle class.
But Cooper, in an interview, said he knows someone could view his vote that way. "But it would be a cheap shot," he quickly added.
"I don't mind taxing the rich," Cooper said, but added that handing out tax relief without calling for deep spending cuts was like serving a meal of sweets.
"We needed some vegetables," he said. "We ate our dessert first."
Now there is going to be even less incentive, Cooper said, for Congress to deal with the spending side of the question when that issue comes up again in two months, likely in combination with a vote on increasing the nation's debt ceiling.
Cooper also said he voted against the bill because it contained a whole section of special-interest tax breaks, affecting everything from motorsport entertainment complexes to Hollywood entertainment companies.
"It's embarrassing," he said.
Bruce Oppenheimer, political scientist at Vanderbilt University, said: "Jim Cooper's vote just is another illustration of why he doesn't have influence in proportion to his intellect within the Democratic Caucus. He's just not very politically pragmatic for better or for worse."
To such observations, Cooper said: "I'm not here to be popular. I'm here to do the right thing for our country."
Some said it could be open to a different spin, though.
"Congressional votes are subject to more interpretations than the Book of Revelation," said Jack Pitney, an expert on the conservative movement at Claremont McKenna College in California.
"Those who voted no will face the accusation that they voted to let taxes go up on everybody. They will counter that they were trying to keep taxes from going up on anybody. All other things being equal, it is usually easier to explain a 'no' vote than a 'yes' vote, since lawmakers can always claim that they preferred a better alternative."
Others said it might protect Republicans by keeping potential 2014 primary opponents from being able to identify them with Democrats and President Barack Obama on the fiscal cliff issue.
"Note that all the Tennessee House Republicans voted against," Oppenheimer said. "So there's some protection in staying in a group."
But Wendy Schiller, congressional expert at Brown University, noted: "The irony is that Grover Norquist gave a 'pass' to all the GOPers who did vote for the bill, saying it did not violate his anti-tax pledge precisely because it cut taxes for 99 percent of Americans."
Norquist is the anti-tax activist known widely for the anti-tax pledge he encourages members of Congress to sign.
Contact Paul C. Barton at firstname.lastname@example.org