Speaker John Boehner said Wednesday he remains committed to a "grand bargain" to cut the deficit while reforming entitlements and taxes — despite growing GOP unhappiness with his longtime push to cut a deal with President Barack Obama.
Although those close to the Ohio Republican said he realizes reaching an agreement with Obama will not happen before next year's elections, at least publicly the Speaker is still pushing for a deal.
Boehner continued with that line of pursuit even as Congressional Republicans and Democrats and the White House are in an increasingly tense standoff this week over wrapping up the appropriations process and extending a payroll tax cut.
Speaking at a Wednesday morning event sponsored by Politico, Boehner said, "If I had my wish list ... I'd like to pass a large debt reduction bill. ... Our debt hangs over our economy and hangs over the American people like a wet blanket."
Those comments echo earlier statements by Boehner, including his pronouncement earlier this month that "the Congress still must work with the president to find a solution to our long-term debt. ... I'm one of those who just never gives up, and I'm not going to give up here either."
Indeed, pursuit of a grand bargain has been a central theme of his speakership. It began with his negotiations with Obama this spring on a continuing resolution, continued through the debt talks led by Vice President Joseph Biden, kept up through Boehner's negotiations on the debt ceiling with Obama in July and was present during the deliberations of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction.
Those close to Boehner said his drive to complete the grand bargain stems from his tendency to take a long view of things, rather than focusing on daily political fights.
Boehner has always "taken the strategic view that we need to address our problems over the long term. ... [He] doesn't let the day-to-day jostling affect" how he works, said Terry Holt, a longtime Boehner ally.
"He doesn't let it bother him like other people in the past have let it bother them," Holt said, arguing that previous Speakers have taken a much more hands-on approach to managing the chamber.
Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) — one of Boehner's closest friends in the House — agreed. Taking a long view is "something he's always strived to do," Latham said, explaining that even with repeated defeats this year, Boehner remains committed because "what has happened in the past doesn't mean it prevents getting something done in the future."
Indeed, taking a long view has been a hallmark of Boehner's political career, most notably his careful return to leadership after being cast out in 1998.
While those close to Boehner view his ability to see the long game as a strength, his dogged pursuit of the grand bargain is a serious problem for a growing number in the GOP.
No Republicans were willing to speak critically of Boehner on the record, and even among those who are critical of his strategy, he remains very popular.
But privately, numerous lawmakers and veteran GOP operatives acknowledged a growing division within the conference over Boehner's focus on a big deal.
"It's failed twice. Twice ... get over it," one rank-and-file Member said recently, pointing to Boehner's failed negotiations with Obama this summer and the failed super committee talks this fall.
A second Republican Member agreed, saying Members are increasingly frustrated that Boehner has focused so much on finding a massive win to the detriment of smaller potential victories.
"We're in a terrible position to get anything big done," this lawmaker said, explaining that part of the frustration stems from the looming elections and nervousness among Members about getting things such as a change to the defense sequester done.
"The closer we get to election season, the more people look to home" and want to get accomplishments under their belt, the Republican said.
Others, including Latham, dismissed those concerns, arguing that Boehner is simply dealing with the reality that sweeping systemic changes are needed to fix the economy and the federal budget.
"He knows it's what has to be done for the country," Latham said.
Boehner supporters also discounted the notion that his focus on the big picture has cost Republicans anything.
Boehner has been successful in getting "the best possible deal that he could for conservatives and has generally run the table on the president all year," Holt argued. "At each step along the way, he's established a basic conservative principle going into resolving" these issues.
"His caucus has pushed him and he's responded by profoundly changing the conversation in Washington," he added.
A review of this year's legislative accomplishments bears that out. With earmarks banned — one of Boehner's biggest accomplishments before even taking the speakership — the appropriations process has shifted from an annual fight over how to spend money to how best to cut spending. Even Democrats such as Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) have adopted the rhetoric of deficit control and spending constraints, long the providence of fiscal hawks in the GOP.
Under Boehner, Republicans have also forced Democrats and the White House to agree to more than $1 trillion in spending reductions over the next decade, and the discussion on Medicare and Social Security has shifted from whether to reform the programs to how best to reform them.
But despite those successes, frustration with his approach continues to build, particularly over his decision not to try to modify this summer's debt deal "sequester" to reduce its effect on defense
Boehner himself acknowledged that some of his Members, particularly the freshmen, have been disappointed at the pace of success. "Our freshmen over the last couple of weeks have been in this grouchy mood," he said during Wednesday's event at the Newseum.
In fact, that frustration with Boehner's approach has risen to the level that Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) openly broke with the Speaker in an exchange with Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on the floor earlier this month.
Pointing to deep divisions between Democrats and Republicans that have continued to stymie efforts at a big deal, Cantor argued, "If we know that there's that divide, we've already seen it play out for eight or nine months, let's try to work incrementally together in a bipartisan way, the way most people do that have differences, come together where you can, set aside the differences."
Cantor and Boehner have at best a complicated relationship, and he has never been shy about breaking with the GOP leader behind the scenes. But Cantor has generally been very careful to avoid openly defying Boehner or staking out such a different position in public.
Those close to Boehner discount any significant divisions between the two leaders. According to several sources, Boehner has come to terms with the fact that, short of a substantial overture from Obama, a grand bargain will remain out of reach for the remainder of the 112th Congress. And while he is unwilling to publicly abandon the idea of a big deal, he has no plans to pursue a grand bargain at this point.
"Look, the reality is that in an election year, the president is extremely unlikely to do anything 'big.' And Boehner knows that," a source close to the Ohio Republican said.
Nevertheless, raw feelings remain among some Republicans.
"It's a nice legacy piece for the Speaker ... [but] it's no longer policy season. It's message season," one lawmaker said.