House Speaker John A. Boehner told reporters, "The president and… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)
WASHINGTON — House Republicans are fired up to prevent President Obama from raising tax rates for the wealthiest Americans, even if that means dashing their Christmas holiday plans and working through New Year's Eve.
That commitment was particularly apparent at a lunchtime gathering of conservatives Wednesday.
"A bad deal is worse than no deal at all," said Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.). "I would rather see us go into next year if the president and the speaker cannot come to a deal."
The House GOP's resistance to compromise comes as influential Republicans elsewhere, including some in the Senate, have indicated that now may be the time to fold the cards on taxes.
The split within the Republican Party has dogged House Speaker John A. Boehner since becoming the GOP leader almost two years ago. But the outbursts from his right flank also provide the Ohio Republican with the political cover he needs to angle for the best deal.
"The president and I had a pretty frank conversation about just how far apart we are," Boehner said Wednesday after a private morning meeting with the House GOP caucus. Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia was at his side, a show of unity from a high-ranking conservative.
Republicans, including Boehner and his top lieutenants, want far more in spending cuts than the president has been willing to consider in exchange for any new tax revenue.
Failure to strike a compromise would result in a $2,200 tax increase on the average family in the new year if the current income tax rates expire, as they are scheduled to do.
"We're going to stay here right up until Christmas Eve, throughout the time and period before the new year, because we want to make sure that we resolve this in an acceptable way for the American people," Cantor said.
Over a lunch of Chick-fil-A sandwiches a few hours later, 10 rank-and-file conservatives showed the depth of their determination as they vented over the prospects of a compromise with the president and the closed-door nature of the talks so far between the speaker and the White House.
Many conservatives remain disappointed in past deals with the White House, including last summer's vote to raise the nation's debt limit in exchange for spending cuts that are now being renegotiated. Some have agitated for new House leadership, though a serious challenge to Boehner appears unlikely.
"There's a frustration amongst real average Americans: Here it is Christmastime getting closer, and once again they look to Washington and see two or three people shut the door, going in behind closed doors," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), who led the conservative meeting. "That's just a bad way to make this decision."
Democrats have delighted in highlighting the challenges Boehner faces in assembling a majority, even as their own party faces similar divisions over several of Obama's key budget proposals.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, a top Democrat, suggested Wednesday that Boehner was trying to delay a deal until after he is officially reelected as speaker Jan. 3, when the new House takes its first vote.
"I think the biggest impediment right now is the speaker's ability to get a decent number of Republican votes for an agreement that I think most people would agree is a fair agreement," Van Hollen said at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
An aide to Boehner dismissed the assertion: "That's nutty."
To be sure, some of those at the conservative lunch have been jilted by their party. Huelskamp was among a small group of conservatives booted from top committees for defying party leaders.
Another, Rep. Jeffrey Landry, a freshman who was defeated for reelection by a veteran lawmaker in Louisiana, believes House Republicans lost seats because they did not hold to their conservative principles. "The position the speaker's in right now, if there's any blame to be placed, it's squarely on his shoulders," he said.
Still, with the prospect that the nation could veer off the so-called fiscal cliff, resulting in automatic tax increases and spending cuts that could seriously jar the economy, even some at the lunch hinted at a compromise.
"What we're saying is that it's ridiculous for Republicans to be accepting any increased rates if there's no real cuts," said freshman Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho). With "real cuts in spending," he said, "all of us would have to reconsider our positions."
As behind-the-scene talks continued, lawmakers appeared resigned to spending their holidays at the Capitol.
"The speaker is hanging in there," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.). "We're going to stand firm with him."
Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.