House Speaker John Boehner could hardly believe what he was hearing.
It was President Barack Obama insisting that Boehner include a long-term U.S. debt limit increase in legislation for a proposed budget deal, and thereby surrender one of the Republicans’ most effective tools for subsequently winning federal spending cuts.
“When you were in the United States Senate, you voted against it,” Boehner told the president at the White House, according to an account he gave rank-and-file Republicans in a Dec. 18 private session. “Are you saying you want us to give you what you wouldn’t give George W. Bush?”
In the Obama-Boehner relationship, there’s been a golf summit (they played as a team), a birthday gift of Tuscan red wine (Obama’s to Boehner), congratulatory post-election telephone calls (Boehner to Obama) and sporadic one-on-one meetings at the White House.
Still, at a personal level, where trust resides, they remain largely strangers. The two men who hold the keys to delivering a deficit-reduction compromise to avert more than $600 billion in tax and spending increases in January are more familiar with each other as partisan foils than policy-making partners, according to people close to both who declined to be named because they aren’t authorized to speak publicly about the interactions between the two leaders.
“It’s not horrible and they don’t hate each other or anything like that, but I don’t think that they’re comfortable with each other,” said Representative Steve LaTourette, an Ohio Republican who is close to Boehner and described the account the speaker gave lawmakers of his latest testy conversation with the president.
“There are some pretty pointed exchanges between the two of them, but they are trying to work it out,” LaTourette added.
Those efforts vanished yesterday when Obama and Boehner held dueling news conferences to blame and threaten each other for the stalled course of the negotiations, a sign of deterioration in the talks. Yet, the stakes for Obama, 51, and Boehner, 63, to get past their differences and find common ground are profound.
In addition to resolving the nation’s immediate fiscal challenges, the outcome of the current stand-off will influence the ability of the president and the speaker to implement changes in immigration laws, the tax code and entitlement programs --achievements that would enrich both their legacies.
Beyond policy differences, Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and Obama, a former Illinois senator, operate differently.
The Republican speaker, a bar owner’s son who favors Newport and Camel Blue cigarettes and Merlot, tends to think in linear terms of how to achieve his objective and line up the support needed to get there.
The Democratic president -- a Hawaii-raised recovering smoker who chews Nicorette gum and prefers iced tea -- yet will indulge in the occasional martini, is improvisational, constructing and deconstructing policy arguments on the spot and relying on his powers of persuasion to try to reach his desired result.
Obama is “pretty cerebral,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, from Nevada, while Boehner “legislates more from the gut.”
“Their relationship reflects the hyper-partisanship that has the town in a vise,” added Manley, a senior director at the Washington-based government relations firm Quinn-Gillespie & Associates LLC. He called the fiscal talks “a defining moment for the president’s final term, because if they can work out something on this, there’s a genuine hope they can work something out on some of the other issues.”
Two years into their working relationship, Obama and Boehner lack confidence and transactional ease with one another, say people close to both of them. They both harbor doubts about the other man’s ability -- or even willingness -- to deliver on bargaining positions discussed privately. That skepticism sprang from the contentious negotiations in July 2011 when they failed to strike a grand bargain to raise the debt ceiling and reduce spending. That breakdown laid the groundwork for the current debate.
Yet each recognizes the other as the inevitable partner needed for any success.
“They’re still circling each other in a very fundamental way,” said Terry Holt, a Republican consultant at HDMK LLC and former Boehner aide who remains close to the speaker. At the same time, Obama and Boehner have “been in more head-to-head negotiations than any president and speaker in a long time.”
Obama nurses bitterness about the way the larger debt ceiling deal faltered last year, complaining that Boehner pulled out and left his phone-calls unanswered. Boehner blames the president for blowing up an emerging deal with a last-minute demand for more tax revenue that he knew Republicans couldn’t accept.
While Obama’s allies say he trusts the speaker to negotiate in good faith, they aren’t convinced Boehner can manage his own caucus, which is populated by lawmakers aligned with the anti-tax-increases Tea Party movement.
“It’s hard to negotiate with a general when it’s not clear that he has his troops behind him,” said Jared Bernstein, a former top economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.
The president spoke about that hurdle during a White House press conference yesterday.
“It is very hard for them to say ‘yes’ to me,” Obama said of Republicans. If they would “peel off the partisan war paint, then we should be able to get something done,” he said, adding that, “I think the speaker would like to.”
In addition to concerns about the Republican caucus, people close to the president complain that Boehner is prone to abrupt turnabouts, breaking off communications with Obama to pursue different strategies.
When Boehner announced House votes this week on a contingency plan to block tax increases on those earning $1 million or less, Obama’s team had a sense of déjà vu, recalling the moment in 2011 when the speaker went radio-silent, their first indication that a broad agreement to raise the debt ceiling and reduce spending was imploding.
Boehner bristles at what he considers Obama’s overestimation of his own intellect and ability to persuade, as well as his tendency to lecture, said people familiar with the speaker’s thinking. And he resents Obama’s tendency to entertain concessions and compromises in private meetings, only to be reined in later by his aides.
Following last month’s elections, Boehner was optimistic that his negotiations with Obama would be productive. During a Nov. 16 meeting the president convened at the White House with congressional leaders, Obama said significant entitlement changes and tax reform would have to be part of any final deal. Yet as the talks began, mistrust re-emerged.
At a subsequent Capitol Hill meeting, the president’s top congressional liaison Rob Nabors told Boehner’s negotiating team he was reluctant to provide a paper copy of Obama’s deficit-reduction offer because he didn’t want to be laughed out of the room, said two people familiar with the talks, speaking on condition of anonymity.
While it was a serious proposal from the White House’s perspective, the concern, according to a third person familiar, was that after a series of leaks that were undermining negotiations, this offer also would go public and create another setback.
The proposal ultimately made its way to Capitol Hill, delivered by Nabors and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on Nov. 29; it demanded $1.6 trillion in tax revenue -- twice what Republicans had said they could entertain.
“Here we are at the 11th hour, and the president still isn’t serious about dealing with this problem,” Boehner later said.
The president often says that Boehner reminds him of the more centrist, business-minded Republicans he used to strike bargains with in Springfield when he served as an Illinois state senator.
Yet, unlike the Republicans in Springfield, Boehner doesn’t have the same flexibility because he’s managing a diverse, national caucus. People close to the president say Boehner resists making concessions that could threaten his speakership, an issue also raised in the 2011 talks.
Still, their ability to work together is as vital to Boehner’s legacy as it is to Obama’s. The speaker, according to allies, sees himself positioned to achieve victories for core Republican Party principles -- reducing U.S. debt, overhauling taxes to lower rates, and transforming entitlement programs to curb their growth. Thus far, he’s managed to keep internal fissures in check.
The president, counseled privately two years ago to improve his relationship with the incoming speaker, also recognizes his fate is tied to Boehner. He isn’t convinced, though, that success hinges exclusively on developing an easy rapport with him.
In a Dec. 4 interview, the president said it was clashing philosophies hindering a Boehner agreement. “I don’t think that the issue right now has to do with sitting in a room,” he said.