WASHINGTON House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner is under pressure from fiscal conservatives in his own party to push steep spending cuts, with a Tea Party stalwart likening the Ohio Republican to "a fool" for not taking a sharper knife to public programs.
Boehner's House Republicans are leading the way in the rush to cut spending to bring down the budget deficit, due to reach a record $1.65 trillion this year, equivalent to 10.9 percent of the U.S. economy.
Republicans have proposed cuts of $61 billion in fiscal year 2011 from current levels, a step President Barack Obama says would choke the faltering economic recovery.
But for some in the Tea Party, it is not enough. They say the figure should be at least $100 billion.
"Congressman Boehner, you look like a fool," Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation, one of the loosely organized conservative movement's most prominent groups, wrote in a recent blog.
"The Tea Party movement sprang up in 2009 as a reaction to insane government spending. In (the) 2010 election, the American people spoke, demanding change," Phillips wrote. "John Boehner did not get the message."
The Tea Party pressure comes as Boehner leads the Republican side in negotiations with the White House and Democrats to work out a spending bill for 2011. They must reach a long-term deal or a short-term funding bill by March 18 or some government services will shut down.
Boehner, 61, a former small businessman from America's heartland, has been a frequent partisan warrior during his two decades in Congress. The son of a bar owner, Boehner used to share a bathroom with 11 siblings at their childhood home in Ohio. He has a natural mistrust of big government.
And dozens of Tea Party backers, fiscally conservative Republicans, were elected to the House in November, forming a powerful bloc to keep Boehner focused on spending.
"He's riding a tiger," said Republican Representative Jeff Flake. "It's tough. There's a lot of impatience out there."
Complaints by Tea Party Republicans have already forced Boehner to almost double the amount of spending cuts proposed this year from $32 billion. The House Republicans passed a bill slashing $61 billion from government programs, from education, environment, health, energy to the humanities and arts.
Boehner drew fire from Democrats last month in taking a hard line on prospects of federal workforce losses stemming from Republican cuts.
"So be it," he said, drawing complaints he was callous.
WARNS OF SHUTDOWN
But Boehner has also shown that he can cross the political aisle to get things done and has warned against a government shutdown.
"We have a moral responsibility to address the problems we face," he told a convention of the National Religious Broadcasters last month.
"That means working together to cut spending and rein in government -- not shutting it down," Boehner said.
Boehner would be among those blamed if some government services are halted, causing layoffs and financial market unease. "He would become a face of the shutdown," said Paul Sracic, a political science professor at Youngstown State University in Boehner's home state.
"If he pulls off a spending-cut deal that works -- that splits the difference between Republicans and Democrats -- he'll come across looking like a leader and that's what the American people want," Sracic said.
Ethan Siegal of The Washington Exchange, a private firm that tracks Washington for institutional investors, said he expects Democrats and Republicans to eventually agree on cuts of $25 billion to $35 billion for the rest of this fiscal year.
"I expect Boehner to convince them (House Republicans) that they can get more later -- when the debt-ceiling comes up, with the 2012 budget, perhaps in talks on tax reform," Siegal said.
Siegal said he also believes that Boehner will reject any calls to shut the government down.
"Boehner knows that a shutdown hurts everybody. Nobody knows who it would hurt more. Boehner knows House Republican freshmen may have a bit of a hair-trigger on this. He needs to walk them back from the cliff," Siegal said.
Republican Representative Tim Scott, backed by the Tea Party in last year's election, said he doesn't see much "wiggle room" to reach a compromise and sympathizes with Boehner.
"He's under enormous pressure," Scott said. "Here's his dilemma: get as many cuts as possible while also getting the 218 votes" needed for passage in the 435-member House.
"I admire him," Scott said. "I don't envy him."
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Doina Chiacu)