Three weeks ago, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry voted against legislation that extended tax cuts enacted during the Bush administration.

Not exactly a politically prudent thing to do.

Some members of the Lincoln congressman's staff tried to talk him out of that vote, but after "wrestling with it," Fortenberry said, he decided the time had come to get serious about burgeoning federal budget deficits and begin to tackle debt reduction.

"I am not there to help manage the decline of America," Fortenberry said Tuesday, looking back on his vote.

The tax cuts were part of a legislative package that extended unemployment benefits, reduced Social Security payroll taxes and cost $858 billion over 10 years.

"I could not, in good conscience, vote for that," Fortenberry said. "I don't want to see taxes go up on working Americans. But the legislation would have added hundreds of billions of new spending with no way to pay for it.

"Long-term structural indebtedness is not a recipe for economic recovery and long-term economic stability," Fortenberry said during an interview in his Lincoln office shortly before he returned to Washington for Wednesday's opening of the new Congress.

"We have the resources and strength to fix these problems," the 1st District Republican congressman said. "But there is a lack of political will to seize these moments."

Growing indebtedness represents a form of hidden taxation, Fortenberry said. It places America in a dependency position of "standing in line at the Bank of China," and it leads to long-term problems, including inflationary pressure.

Last month's decision, engineered in "the 11th hour" of a lame-duck session of Congress, represented yet another lost opportunity to match tax policy with spending discipline and debt reduction, Fortenberry said.

"This was a moment that should have been leveraged by the president and the Congress to take a look at the tax code structure," he said. "It is regrettable this moment was lost. We kicked the can down the road."

Looking ahead to the new Congress, Fortenberry said he believes a House Republican leadership goal of reducing domestic spending by $100 billion this year is doable.

"It's hard to do," he said, "but we should do it. Spending has doubled during the last 10 years, and exponentially in the last two years."

Unlike some of his colleagues, Fortenberry would not exempt the defense budget from possible spending cuts.

"We should always look at every budget.  It's imprudent to take anything off the table."

Fortenberry also believes Congress should take a close look at some of the recommendations endorsed by a majority of the members of the presidential deficit reduction commission.

"I think the reaction from the right and the left was inappropriate," he said. "Automatic dismissal is wrong. Dead-on-arrival ignores reality.

"There were elements that were reasonable and make sense, as well as others I don't like. It should be a starting place for conversation."

Along with deep cuts in domestic and military spending, a majority of commission members endorsed proposals to raise the Social Security retirement age, increase the gas tax and refine the tax code.

"We need to think generationally how to turn this around," Fortenberry said. "We need to face the hard realities of choices, prioritize the essentials and see beyond the short term."

Reach Don Walton at 402-473-7248 or at