By Paul C. Barton, The Tennessean
WASHINGTON — Five Republican U.S. House members from Tennessee defied their party's tea party wing as well as many conservative groups and think tanks in voting for a budget deal designed to avert another government shutdown.
Republican Reps. Diane Black of Gallatin, Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood, Stephen Fincher of Frog Jump, Chuck Fleischmann of Ooltewah and Phil Roe of Johnson City were among the 332 representatives Thursday night who voted yes.
Republican Reps. Scott DesJarlais of Jasper and John Duncan Jr. of Knoxville were among the 94 who voted no.
Whether the yes votes could arouse far-right constituents to challenge some members in next year's congressional primaries remains to be seen.
Make no mistake, though, conservative activists are not happy.
"We have fewer and fewer people in Washington, D.C., who will make difficult decisions on spending," said Ben Cunningham, president of the Nashville Tea Party. "This vote is especially troubling because it delays any real chance for budget reductions until after the 2014 elections, which I am sure was part of their decision."
The agreement, which the Senate is expected to vote on next week, eliminates half of the spending cuts in federal agencies that were supposed to happen in fiscal 2014. Those cuts had been scheduled under the 2011 budget deal that set in motion an automatic spending-reduction process known as sequestration.
Over 10 years, the new deal is supposed to reduce government deficits by $85 billion. But in the short term, it increases spending by $63 billion.
It also will keep the government funded until the fall of 2015 and will, its backers say, end the crisis-to-crisis process of dealing with the budget and national debt that has plagued Congress and President Barack Obama since 2010.
"We have been going in the right direction with the sequester," Cunningham said. "But with this vote, they are saying to their constituents, 'We have made all the tough decisions we are going to make, you will simply have to live with huge deficits for the foreseeable future.' "
Tom Clifton, spokesman for the Mid-South Tea Party in Memphis, shared those sentiments.
"My reaction is simply that they (Republicans) caved," Clifton said. "They didn't stand up for what they told people they believed in."
Many Washington groups known for advocating cuts in government spending also described approval of the budget deal as a "cave-in."
Cato Institute fiscal analyst Chris Edwards, for instance, wrote that "the Budget Control Act of 2011 and related sequester have started bearing fruit and are currently providing substantial discretionary spending control. Yet Republican leaders are apparently planning to throw it away in return for revenue increases and paltry spending trims."
Others who denounced the deal included Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth and Heritage Action.
Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, warned that voters "are not pleased to see their conservative representatives so easily go back on their word to rein in government overspending."
Meanwhile, several Tennessee Republicans who voted yes described the deal as something "far from perfect" yet necessary to show Washington doesn't always have to operate in crisis mode.
Black, who came to Congress as part of the tea party wave of 2010 and helped forge the deal as part of a special House-Senate committee, called the agreement "a modest step in the right direction."
"By restoring our budgeting process to regular order, we can stop governing from crisis to crisis and provide some needed certainty to the way Washington works for the American people," Black said in a prepared statement. "Furthermore, this deal reduces our deficit without raising taxes and provides smarter cuts and reforms that will help make our government more responsible and efficient."
Blackburn said the agreement, among other things, "reins in waste, fraud and abuse by ending the permanent extension of unemployment benefits."
But such reasoning didn't wash with DesJarlais and Duncan.
"Not only does this budget deal fail to adequately address our nation's debt and deficit, it trades real spending cuts for the promise of future reductions," said DesJarlais, also part of the tea party wave of 2010. "Further, this bill raises taxes under the guise of increasing user fees. My constituents are adamantly opposed to the idea of sending more of their money to Washington to pay for further government expansion."
Said Duncan: "I could not vote for a bill that increases spending by $63 billion when our national debt is more than $17 trillion dollars and climbing higher and faster than ever before."
Political analysts say Republican House Speaker John Boehner's midweek push-back against conservative groups helped provide political cover for yes votes.
"Many Republicans in Congress appear to be growing disenchanted with the tea party groups, which tend to demand ideological purity from them," said Mark Byrnes, political scientist at Middle Tennessee State Univervsity.
"Such a stance makes it hard to run a government. The Tennessee House Republicans took something of a chance by voting for the budget deal."
But others discounted any suggestion that the vote took political courage.
"Those representatives voting for the budget deal are fairly safe," said David Kanervo, political analyst at Austin Peay State University. "Rather than fearing tea party opponents, I believe they were more afraid of the majority of likely voters who were very angry about the federal government shutdown."
Those members, he said, "can now run for re-election saying they voted to avoid another budget crisis so that the Congress could address other important issues."
Vanderbilt University political scientist Bruce Oppenheimer said the yes votes were "not a big deal." He said the number who voted in favor of it gave them all political cover.
But Clifton, of the Mid-South Tea Party, said the vote could "absolutely" result in primary challengers for some members.
"I don't care if they are a Democrat if they will do the right thing," he said.