HEBER CITY, Utah — U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz flew home from Washington last week, leaving behind a capital baffled by Republicans like him in Congress: those who stubbornly refuse to compromise with President Barack Obama, a tactic that some see as damaging the GOP brand and pushing the nation repeatedly to the brink of fiscal chaos.
Back in his Utah district, Chaffetz drove to the Dairy Keen and barely had bitten into a bacon cheeseburger before a diner begged him to stop Obama’s health care overhaul.
“It’s the stupidest plan in the world,” said Phoebe Eason, 69, leaning over her booth to complain about a clause that forces her husband, a podiatrist, to pay more for medical devices.
“I’m doing everything I can to repeal it or take out these sections,” Chaffetz reassured her. Minutes later, he headed to a town hall where some constituents asked why the president hadn’t yet been impeached.
To understand why the nation may remain politically gridlocked for the next two years, talk to people in a place like Heber City, a conservative farming and ranching hub nestled beneath the imposing peaks of the Wasatch mountains. Many voters here, and in conservative communities across the country, still want to do whatever it takes to stop Obama, despite his solid re-election in November, and the politicians they elect are listening.
In his State of the Union address this week, Obama laid out an ambitious agenda that includes gun control, raising the minimum wage, allowing most of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country to become citizens and raising tax revenue to help cut the deficit.
But the president has acknowledged it will be difficult to get those proposals through a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
“The House Republican majority is made up mostly of members who are in sharply gerrymandered districts that are very safely Republican and may not feel compelled to pay attention to broad-based public opinion, because what they’re really concerned about is the opinions of their specific Republican constituencies,” Obama said in an interview with the The New Republic magazine last month.
Analysts differ on whether gerrymandering — the practice of drawing district lines so your party can pick up more seats — fully explains why Obama handily won re-election in November even as Republicans lost only a handful of seats in the House. One thing is clear: Compromise is a dirty word for many of the Republicans remaining in the House. Only 36 percent of GOP voters would look favorably on a politician who compromises, in contrast to 59 percent of Democratic ones and 53 percent of independent ones, according to a Pew poll last month.
Virtually all House Republicans come from districts that voted against Obama in November. And in many states, primary voters have punished Republicans they see as too eager to cut deals with Democrats.
That’s how Chaffetz, 45, won his seat in 2008. He challenged a 12-term Republican congressman who angered the party’s base by backing an immigration overhaul that included granting citizenship to many illegal immigrants. Two years later, Utah Republican primary voters also pushed out Sen. Robert Bennett, replacing him with a tea party-supported candidate who is now the state’s junior senator.
Though he has worked with Democrats on some bills, Chaffetz has refused to budge on some of the biggest issues in Washington. In 2011, he voted against raising the debt ceiling, arguing Congress and Obama weren’t reining in entitlement spending. Most economists said that if the limit hadn’t been raised it would have triggered a global depression. Last month, Chaffetz voted against the so-called fiscal cliff deal because it involved raising levies on those making more than $450,000 annually. Taxes would have risen on all income levels had the deal not passed.
Chaffetz also voted against aid for victims of Superstorm Sandy, saying the bill was larded with pork. He did vote to delay another debt ceiling confrontation until May, but says he won’t budge on automatic spending cuts scheduled to kick in next month or on his opposition to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
“The perception inside the Beltway is dramatically different than in hometown America,” Chaffetz said. “Most people in my district believe we’ve compromised too much.”
Chaffetz’s district stretches from the southern Salt Lake City suburbs and Provo, home to Brigham Young University, to the high valleys of Wasatch County. Nearly half of the county’s 23,000 residents live in this town. Once an overlooked rural community far from the Salt Lake City metropolitan area, it has recently seen an influx of more liberal-minded residents drawn by its proximity to storied ski resorts like nearby Park City. In Utah, this place is almost a swing county. Nonetheless, it voted 3-1 for Romney in November.
Here’s how things look from Heber City: Obama hiked taxes while pushing through his health care reform. Then he got another round during the fiscal cliff negotiations. Now he’s making a third attempt during the latest debt ceiling standoff. Meanwhile, the federal budget has been trimmed, but only slightly. The debt is still huge. Republicans are folding at every turn.
“I’m sick of Republicans not sticking to their principles,” said Tina Peterson, 45, who works at a resort in nearby Park City. She recently moved her family here from Arizona after the recession destroyed their construction business. A new arrival in Utah — “I’m a Christian but not LDS” — she sees Obama as the unbending force in Washington, not her own party.
“His ideology is what it is and he can stick to it,” Peterson said. “We do the same and we get demonized.”
Not everyone here wants to just say no.
“There’s no sense in falling on our sword and throwing a wrench just to destroy things,” said Aaron Gabrielson, chair of the Wasatch County Republican Party. Still, he added: “It doesn’t seem like compromise has gotten us very far.”
Jaren Davis, 53, a Republican Salt Lake City real estate developer who owns a second home here, sat in Chick’s Cafe on Main Street and bemoaned polarization in politics.
“Both sides, right and left, with 24-hour news, they just need to get more fanatical to get on TV,” said Davis, who unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the state Legislature. He noted that partisans have to cater to their extreme wing to win a primary — the same as winning the general election in this deeply red state.
Chaffetz held his town hall in a county education building. He began by giving a presentation on the weight of the federal debt. Voters asked about the value of the dollar, how to keep the federal government from converting more of the state’s land to protected wilderness and the use of drones in the U.S. They also voiced their frustration about the president.
“Have you not found anything to impeach the president of the United States?” asked Jeff Riddle, 34, an attorney. “Losing a drone to Iran? Killing Americans with drones? Infringing on Second Amendment rights?”
Chaffetz asked for patience. He said the best course was to allow congressional investigations into possible administration wrongdoing, like the Fast and the Furious gun-running program, to continue.
“What is it going to take to make the change in Washington?” asked retired commercial airline pilot Robert Wren, 74. “Are we going to have to have a minor revolution of the people? Are we going to have to wait until the next election?”
Chaffetz said the problem is that Republicans haven’t communicated well with voters. Later, asked if he ever felt pressure to back down, he acknowledged occasional disagreements with GOP leadership on whether to subpoena the White House.
“I don’t know if we have stood up for ourselves as much as we should,” he said.
Wren said he was pleased with his congressman’s unflinching stance. “He’s representing his constituents.”