With the clock ticking down on the bargaining, the "fiscal cliff"—sweeping tax increases and budget cuts that begin in January unless an accord is reached to avert them—is testing conservatives' unity and their leverage.
A year after wielding considerable clout in repeated budget clashes against the White House, two factors have weakened conservatives trying to prevent a GOP agreement with Obama that they don't like:
— Republican Election Day losses of the White House as well as seats in the House and Senate following a campaign in which Obama pressed hard for tax boosts on the wealthiest Americans.
— Polls showing that voters would largely blame Republicans should a stalemate with the president trigger the cliff's tax boosts and spending cuts.
In a significant movement toward Obama's insistence on higher tax rates, Boehner is now willing to let them rise on the 368,000 households with annual incomes above $1 million as part of package that would swell the government's revenues by $1 trillion over the next decade.
Yet even with GOP pragmatists saying it's time to agree to Obama's demands for
"If there's any blame to be placed, it's squarely on his shoulders," Rep. Jeff Landry, R-La., said recently about Boehner, referring to House-approved spending levels and deficits of the past two years.
Landry, who lost his re-election bid, is a member of the tea party-backed House GOP freshman class of 2010. Saying he would oppose any deal raising income tax rates, Landry said of the government: "I'm not giving this beast any more money to grow."
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a veteran House conservative leader, took a more measured tone but said he would vote against a compromise raising tax rates. "Tax increases are not conducive to growing economies and creating jobs," he said.
Yet still other conservatives, while opposing tax increases, are doing little to hold Boehner's feet to the fire on the issue. They acknowledge they've been weakened by the "fiscal cliff" itself since taxes for nearly all taxpayers automatically rise Jan. 1 if the two sides fail to reach an agreement.
"We don't see how we have a whole lot of leverage," said freshman Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas.
"Speaker Boehner needs room to negotiate," said Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., another freshman. "I think he knows that I and the others are not in favor of tax-rate increases. But the speaker is going to do what he believes is in the best interest of the conference," he said, meaning House Republicans, "and knowing he has to get the votes."
Earlier this month, Boehner and other House GOP leaders removed four conservatives—including three freshmen—from desirable committee assignments after they'd cast votes defying party leadership. The move was seen by conservatives as punishment for refusing to abandon their principles, yet those targeted have offered few signs that their behavior will change.
"I have more support than I've ever had back in my district," said one of them, Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich. He said if Boehner visited his southern Michigan district, "he's not going to be met with very much welcome."
Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., said she would be open to compromise if the ultimate package included significant spending cuts. She also suggested the possibility of a path some consider unthinkable but that some liberals have also supported—letting the tax increases and spending cuts take effect without a satisfactory deal, since Congress could roll them back if a pact was reached later.
Too much is being made of going over the cliff, she said, "as if it's the equivalent of the Mayan calendar on the 21st of December. It's not."
The Mayan calendar's 5,125-year cycle ends on Dec. 21, prompting some people to worry the world will end that day.
Meanwhile, conservative interest groups are trying to pressure Republicans to oppose any tax boosts.
"If they vote for tax rate increases, they're likely going to have a primary opponent and have a tough 2014," Chris Chocola, president of the conservative Club for Growth, said in an interview.
The group spent $10 million in the 2012 campaigns opposing GOP candidates it considered not conservative enough, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks election spending.
"I would presume a Republican primary would be a red flashing light in many places," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., another freshman disciplined by Boehner who says he will oppose tax increases.
Americans for Tax Reform, headed by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, has sent a petition to the 150,000 people on its email list.
Most GOP lawmakers have signed Norquist's pledge promising to oppose tax increases, though some now say addressing the government's fiscal problems outweighs the pledge.
The petition urges lawmakers "to keep the promise they made to their constituents to not raise taxes." More than 38,000 people had signed it by late last week, said group spokesman John Kartch.
Associated Press writer Philip Elliott contributed to this report.