Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Personal History Hampers the Obama-Boehner Budget Talks

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Personal History Hampers the Obama-Boehner Budget Talks

Article excerpt

The fiscal negotiation is between two men who have little regard for the other's bargaining skills and a relationship soured by the mutual recriminations after their failure 18 months ago.

At a closed-door Capitol meeting last week, Representative Peter Roskam of Illinois was regaling other Republicans with his imitation of Speaker John A. Boehner, imagining him in the current budget negotiations with President Barack Obama. He pretended to drag on a cigarette like the chain-smoking speaker, and blew away smoke and Mr. Obama's tax demands in one raspy retort: "Ain't gonna happen."

Then the actual speaker stepped to the podium to poke fun at the president. "He's chewing Nicorette," Mr. Boehner said to the laughter of the Republicans.

A day later, an Obama adviser was recalling the failed budget talks between the president and Mr. Boehner last year and joked about one tactic for dealing with the speaker, who favors merlot: "Give him a glass of wine, and he'll be better to deal with."

These episodes, while lighthearted, capture the personal gulf between the president, who is 51, and the speaker, who is 63, as they try once again, alone and in private, to negotiate an elusive "grand bargain." The goal is to raise tax revenue and shrink spending to stabilize the national debt and, more immediately, prevent a fiscal crisis come January, when more than $500 billion in tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts are to take effect absent a deal.

But it is a negotiation between two men who have little regard for the other's bargaining skills, with a relationship soured by the mutual recriminations after their failure 18 months ago, people on both sides say.

An Oval Office meeting on Dec. 9 was their first one alone since that time. They met again on Thursday night and spoke by phone on Friday. People familiar with the talks said Mr. Boehner had offered to allow tax rates to rise for income above $1 million; Mr. Obama is holding out for the $250,000 threshold, but administration officials considered the Boehner overture a sign of progress.

With little in common, Mr. Boehner and Mr. Obama have never had more than a distant, respectful relationship. Both avid golfers, they have played together just once, an outing in June 2011 that led to their first attempt at a budget deal.

Mr. Boehner has told friends, "We just don't speak the same language." Mr. Obama told the author Bob Woodward that if the speaker "had more control of his caucus," they would have sealed the deal last year. Referring to two past Republican leaders, Mr. Obama added: "I could have done a deal with Bob Dole. I could have even done a deal with Newt Gingrich."

Past and current Obama administration officials say Mr. Boehner has little grasp of strategy and less of a hold on policy details. Yet Mr. Boehner is confident that he is the one with depth and experience in deal-making and regards Mr. Obama as a naif.

A Republican aide familiar with the talks said the president had spent long stretches trying to persuade Mr. Boehner of the wisdom of his positions, which the speaker views as "an enormous waste of time," the aide said. Conversations in the past few days have been 90 percent Mr. Obama, 10 percent Mr. Boehner, the aide said.

Aside from their divergent views of their abilities, the two men's goals are at cross-purposes.

Mr. Obama vows to end the Bush-era tax cuts for high incomes so that the wealthy contribute toward deficit reduction that would otherwise fall on the poor and middle class. Mr. Boehner says he is willing to increase revenue somehow but not by raising tax rates -- though to do even that, he needs to show his fellow Republicans a presidential commitment to significantly more savings from entitlement spending, chiefly Medicare, than Mr. Obama has proposed.

Last year, Mr. Boehner had the edge as Mr. Obama faced a difficult re-election campaign and needed Republicans' support to increase the nation's borrowing limit, lest the government default. …

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