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House Republicans stick with Boehner on fiscal cliff

By Deirdre Walsh, CNN Senior Congressional Producer
updated 9:15 PM EST, Wed December 5, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Most House GOP members giving speaker some room to get a deal
  • Boehner has promised to push back against the White House
  • Boehner and Obama speak by phone, but no movement reported

Washington (CNN) -- U.S. House Speaker John Boehner has faced tricky negotiations before.

He bargained with President Barack Obama and the Democratic-led Senate over the debt ceiling, funding the government and extending tax cuts. In every case, the speaker's boisterous conference of conservatives refused to fall in line, resisting almost every major concession Boehner tried to put on the table to extract something for his side.

But for now, the high stakes game over reaching a deal to avert the fiscal cliff seems different.

The rich will pay more taxes, Boehner says

Hensarling: No vote for revenue increase
Rep. Cole: Extend tax cuts under $250K
Borger: Cliff is Congress' own creation

There are some GOP defections, but the loud resistance and "hell no" sentiment many fiscal conservatives expressed in the past don't appear evident. Instead, the majority of House Republicans are allowing the speaker some room to find a way to get to a deal.

Earlier in the week, Boehner and top House Republican leaders delivered a counter offer to the White House's opening bid that offered up to $800 billion in new revenue from closing loopholes and capping deductions for wealthier Americans -- a break from their party's position that no new tax increases were needed.

While several prominent Senate conservatives and outside groups immediately rejected the proposal, this time most House Republicans either stood with Boehner or muted their criticism. Many of those who openly challenged Boehner in the past, instead, trained their fire on the White House.

Conservatives blast Boehner tax increases; other Republicans withhold criticism

At the weekly meeting on Wednesday of all House Republicans, Boehner gave the loose outline of his offer, but didn't give any additional details on the plan or next steps. But he pledged to push back at the president, who is arguing the GOP has to accept his terms because he won the election.

"The American people re-elected him - and they re-elected us. That's not a mandate to raise tax rates. It's a mandate to work together," Boehner said, according to remarks provided to CNN by a House GOP leadership aide.

Most Republicans leaving the meeting told CNN they think the speaker's strategy is a good one.

"The speaker has the full support of the conference to move forward and to get something done for the American people," Louisiana Republican Charles Boustany told CNN.

"We're united," said Texas Republican Pete Sessions.

New Jersey Republican Scott Garrett, a leading fiscal conservative who has voted against GOP leaders in the past, told CNN "the speaker has done an admirable job, I think, of being forthright -- so much fuller than the president has been saying this is our plan. This is our offer."

Aiding the speaker's effort to keep his troops in line is the widespread frustration among GOP members who think Obama is overreaching and focusing on political pressure instead of serious negotiations.

"The president has to show up and negotiate. He needs to quit running around the country, sit down across the table from the speaker, get the Senate majority leader in the room, and they need to start working," Boustany said.

Asked why this debate is different, Boehner said Wednesday that his GOP colleagues recognize what's at stake.

"I think our members understand the seriousness of the situation that our country faces. Trillion dollar deficits for as far as the eye can see. Sixteen-trillion dollars ... every man, woman and child, the number is increasing every single year. As result, our members understand we've got to solve the problem and we will."

Despite many giving the speaker some breathing room there are some cracks in the GOP's efforts to show a united front.

Last week one veteran member, Oklahoma Rep Tom Cole, suggested that the House Republicans agree to Democrats demands to hold a vote just on tax cuts for the middle class.

Cole defends position on tax compromise in fiscal cliff battle

GOP divide over Obama tax plan goes public

One conservative freshman lawmaker wasn't sold on Boehner's plan on taxes, and warned that the Speaker's message wasn't winning the PR battle on the fiscal cliff fight.

"I just think raising taxes is a bad idea," Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador told CNN. "But my main message right now to the conference and to America is that Republicans need to keep focusing on individuals. We're losing the messaging battle. Our job is to protect the American citizen not American businesses. Businesses can take care of themselves."

Ohio Republican Steve LaTourette is circulating a letter with some Democrats urging leaders of both parties give some ground on their sacred cows - taxes and entitlements.

"I and some others are advocating give the president what he wants but only as part of the four or five trillion-dollar package," LaTourette said, but argued a big deal means Democrats need to bend too.

But Democrats feel they are the ones with the upper hand in these negotiations and that a growing number of Republicans will eventually break ranks and force Boehner to agree to their terms.

"They are more and more facing a reality that there was an election," Rep Sander Levin, the top Democrat on the tax writing Ways and Means Committee, said of House GOP members. "They need to accept it."

Sen. Chuck Schumer argued there are more Republicans who disagree with Boehner, but they aren't going public yet.

"In addition to those Republicans who have spoken out publicly, there are probably dozens of other Tom Coles in the House who just don't feel free to speak their mind but certainly agree with him privately," Schumer, a New York Democrat, said.

Levin argued the GOP math simply doesn't add up to get significant tax revenue without allowing the current tax rates for the upper income Americans to expire, so they will be forced to come around.

As in previous high level negotiations with the president, House Republicans recognize that they are supporting players, and the final stages of this debate will play out behind closed doors with the president and Boehner.

Boehner "has to see if they can get to a private conversation," said CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen. "The deal has to be cut privately."

But if and when the negotiations get to the point where the president and the speaker start serious horse trading, that may be when significant numbers of conservatives part ways with Boehner.

Right now, there are scant details and many members don't have a lot to shoot at, so they are withholding judgment.

After no direct conversations between the two men for a week, Boehner and Obama spoke by phone on Wednesday, but there was no movement on the main sticking point of tax rates, sources familiar with the conversation told CNN

In previous negotiations over a potential government shut down and the renewal of the payroll tax when information began to leak on the shape of proposals, conservatives felt blindsided about being handed a deal and asked to sign on while staring down a deadline.

CNN's Dana Bash, Kate Bolduan, and Halimah Abdullah contributed to this report.

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