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Some local GOP Congress members reconsider shutdown goal

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Published:   |   Updated: October 13, 2013 at 08:15 AM

TAMPA ­­— This area’s Republican Congress members, some of whom oppose shutting down the government over Obamacare, have continued to vote against efforts to restart government funding.

A few of those GOP House members, including Richard Nugent of Spring Hill, Tom Rooney of Okeechobee and Dennis Ross of Lakeland, now are lining up with a new House Republican strategy.

They hope to combine the shutdown and negotiations about the debt ceiling, with the goal of seeking changes in Social Security and other entitlement programs.

The changes, some Republicans suggest, could include increases in the retirement age, means-testing benefits and cutting cost-of-living increases, while slightly increasing taxes paid by high-income earners.

Making the budget shutdown fight about the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, “was never going to win,” Rooney said in an interview Friday.

“At the end of August, our colleagues in the Senate decided this would be a good opportunity to defund Obamacare,” the representative said. “Now we’re scrambling to get back to talking about our debt.

“Those senators have sort of disappeared and we’re out there dangling in the wind,” Rooney said.

His comments reflect resentment by some Republicans against Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and other tea-party hardliners involved in the shutdown.

“If those senators have an idea about how we get out of this, I’m still waiting to hear that,” Rooney said.

Meanwhile, the one House Democrat from the area, Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa, expressed anger at the continuing shutdown and what she said was a lack of any clear goal on the part of Republicans for “holding people hostage.”

“They say they’re in favor of (ending the shutdown), but then they vote to keep it from coming up,” Castor said. “It’s hypocritical, but more importantly it is causing real economic harm to families and business owners all across the country. … This brinkmanship simply has to end.”

Florida’s two senators also have split along partisan lines on the shutdown.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a key backer of Cruz, appears to be shifting his focus to entitlements and away from Obamacare as well.

In late September, Rubio praised Cruz’s one-man filibuster on the issue, telling Fox News, “This is about shutting down Obamacare.”

But in a Senate floor speech Thursday, he didn’t mention the health insurance plan, focusing only on federal debt, which he said threatens to destroy the American dream.

Spending on Social Security and Medicare are the chief causes of the debt, he said.

“When you hear the president or the Democrats here in the Senate say they want us to pass what they call a “Clean Debt Limit Increase,” here is what they are really asking for: They are asking us to borrow another $1 trillion but not do anything meaningful to slow the growth of that debt,” he said.

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, like Castor, has called the shutdown “reckless and irresponsible,” and says House Republicans should allow a vote on a bill to restart government funding with no restrictions.

Among other Republican House members from the area:

◆ Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor, who wasn’t available for an interview, wrote this week that he is “committed to ending the government shutdown and doing what’s right for the American people,” and has “voted multiple times to keep the government funded.”

◆ Nugent, also unavailable for comment, wrote a newspaper column Oct. 1 blaming Senate Democrats for the continuing shutdown because they voted against a continuing resolution that included repeal of the medical device tax that’s part of Obamacare. He added, “Everybody is grandstanding on this — and Congress shouldn’t have put the country in this position in the first place — but the bottom line here is that there are people on both sides who think their side wins by prolonging this fight and letting this shutdown get dragged out for as long as possible. I am not one of those people. “

◆ Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores, hospitalized with back problems, has said he would favor a “clean” continuing resolution to restart government funding, meaning one that doesn’t include any restrictions on funding for the Affordable Care Act.

◆ Ross also has said an attempt to defund Obamacare by shutting down the government is futile and “not worth continuing to keep the government shut down.”

Despite these stances, however, all the Tampa area Republicans have voted with their party to prevent unrestricted legislation funding government operations from coming up before the House.

For the past week or more, Republicans have been bringing up bills on the House floor to fund specific programs, including Head Start and WIC, a nutrition program for women with young children.

Democrats have sought to amend those bills to bring up a government-wide funding resolution, and Republicans have been near-unanimous in procedural votes blocking the amendments.

Nugent, Rooney and Ross, meanwhile, along with 48 other Republicans, have signed a letter to House Speaker John Boehner saying Republicans should adopt entitlement reform as their demand in the negotiations over the fiscal crisis.

Other Florida signers were Ted Yoho of Gainesville and Steve Southerland of Panama City.

That letter didn’t specify changes, but an accompanying letter signed only by Reid Ribble, R-Wi, listed expansion of the current, phased-in retirement age increases; changing the inflation formula for cost-of-living benefits raises; means-testing benefits; and increasing the amount of income to which Social Security taxes apply.

Republicans are becoming increasingly worried about the stalemate as polls indicate the party’s image is hurting as result.

Two polls last week, one by Gallup and one done for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, both showed public approval of the Republican Party falling to its lowest levels ever in those polls – 28 percent in Gallup and 24 percent for NBC/WSJ.

wmarch@tampatrib.com

813-259-7761

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