SALT LAKE CITY — All but one member of Utah’s congressional delegation voted against the last-minute tax package approved New Year’s Day, complaining the deal on the so-called “fiscal cliff” didn’t include cuts in government spending.
But it’s not clear they’ll face any political fallout in Utah for opposing legislation halting a tax increase for most taxpayers and raising rates on those earning more than $400,000 as an individual or $450,000 as a household.
And the same is likely true for Sen. Orrin Hatch, the sole supporter among the Utah delegation for a bill brokered behind closed doors by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Vice President Joe Biden.
“I think the way this deal came down and its actual form will reinforce a lot of the disgust that people are feeling toward D.C. but will not change anyone’s opinion on our five D.C. representatives,” said Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.
That might be a different story had the deal been defeated with the help of Utahns in Congress, Jowers said, because taking no action would have been disastrous.
“I think there’s a good excuse for the way everyone voted,” Jowers said. “Four of the five representatives got to have their cake and eat it, too. They were able to vote against a bill that most people in Utah probably will not like, but not go off the fiscal cliff.”
Utah tea party organizer David Kirkham said voters want spending brought under control but don’t trust Congress to get the job done.
“We have a big problem we’re not looking at,” he said. “These guys are never going to fix it. You know what? In Hatch’s defense, maybe he realized that and got what he could” for taxpayers.
Maryann Martindale, executive director of the progressive Alliance for a Better UTAH, said Hatch was able to vote for the deal because he’s the only member of the delegation not expected to run for re-election.
“There’s nothing they can do to Hatch,” Martindale said of the conservatives who dominate Utah politics. “The other guys basically pandered to the extremes, but those are the same people who are going to keep them in.”
Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, said he didn’t back the deal because his constituents wanted to see spending cuts as well as some sweeping reforms.
“I’m looking for a bigger deal,” Matheson said. Had the bill not been approved, he said, there would have more pressure to make a broader deal because no one would be willing to allow the tax increases to stand.
Now, Matheson said, there are new deadlines to deal with spending cuts that were also supposed to take effect Jan. 1 but were delayed two months by the deal.
The tax package passed Wednesday, he said, “may help everyone feel better for a little while, but it ain’t even going to last until spring. That’s the problem. We’re going to face another set of deadlines” and more financial uncertainty.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, also a no vote, said his constituents let him know they appreciated him standing up for spending cuts.
“I got elected to fight back against the fiscal mess in this country, not add to it,” Chaffetz said. “More people need to stand up and say we’re not going to put up with that any more.”
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said his constituents were split over what he should do. In the end, he said, “you just have to do what you think is right.”
Bishop said he was especially frustrated that cuts in military spending weren’t addressed in the deal. “It’s still up in the air,” he said, expressing concern for his constituents who work at Hill Air Force Base and other installations.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was one of just eight votes against the compromise in the Senate. That’s what Utahns wanted him to do, his communications director, Brian Phillips, said.
“Overwhelmingly, the people who called form Utah were asking him to vote no,” Phillips said. “The predominant message we received from the people who called was that this was being done in secret. … They were very upset.”
State GOP Chairman Thomas Wright said the Utah delegation shouldn’t be judged on how they voted on the deal because it didn’t address spending.
“We’re looking at this one vote thinking something happened. Nothing happened,” Wright said. “It’s all theater. Nothing’s getting done.”
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said he was surprised there wasn’t more support for the deal among Utah’s congressional delegation.
“It’s very clear that for most Americans, that was a priority,” Burbank said. “I think Utahns fall into that same category. I don’t think most Utahns want a tax increase (on the wealthy) but I think they wanted to get this deal done more.”