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Fight Over Debt Tests Leadership Of Obama, Boehner

This article is more than 8 years old.
President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner meet with Republican and Democratic leaders regarding the debt ceiling in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington in July. (AP)
President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner meet with Republican and Democratic leaders regarding the debt ceiling in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington in July. (AP)

A last-minute crisis-averting deal could prove a bitter victory at best.

Obama quickly deployed his unique bully pulpit, asking the public Friday to put pressure on lawmakers. "If you want to see a bipartisan compromise - a bill that can pass both houses of Congress and that I can sign - let your members of Congress know," Obama exhorted. Congressional phone lines were flooded.

Indeed throughout the twists and turns of the debate Obama and Democrats have appeared to come out on top politically, with polls showing that the public thinks Republicans are being less reasonable and need to compromise as the 2012 presidential election approaches.

Yet by most accounts, Boehner and his Republicans have already won on policy, forcing a national conversation about debt and pushing Obama to focus on historic spending cuts and drop demands for new taxes. "If you're spending more money than you're taking in, you need to spend less of it," Boehner said.

How Will It End?

Boehner could be forced to swallow a compromise opposed by enough tea party conservatives to pose a threat to his speakership. Meanwhile, Obama is holding out for his one remaining criterion, a compromise that ensures the debt ceiling will be raised until 2013.

A last-minute crisis-averting deal could prove a bitter victory at best.

If they don't pull it off, though, Obama could go down as the president who lost the country' triple-A credit rating, and Boehner as the House speaker who let it happen.

The consequential developments have played out around a first-term president and newly elected speaker who've forged a solid if not particularly warm working relationship, shot through with moments of deep frustration.

The Men Behind The Debate

Personally, the two have little in common. Boehner, 61, is a laid-back, sometimes emotional small-business owner from Ohio; Obama, 49, a cerebral and aloof law professor from Chicago. Their off-the-clock socializing to date started and ended with a game of golf in June.

The two men achieved one major legislative win together when they reached a deal to stave off a government shutdown in April. They have a ways to go before they forge a relationship to rival the storied pairings of predecessors such as President Ronald Reagan and Speaker Tip O'Neill.

But aides to both men note that they trust each other enough to have begun working together on a so-called grand bargain of historic spending cuts, Medicare reform and tax increases, although aides differ about whose idea it was. Boehner's camp says the speaker pushed the president toward the big deal in a conversation during their game of golf, while White House aides say Obama already wanted to go in that direction.

Although each blamed the other when the deal subsequently went south, the fact that they couldn't pull it off had little if anything to do with their personal relationship, analysts said. Boehner was contending with a tea party-influenced caucus ready to revolt over tax increases, while Obama held out for a major package that could dramatically impact the deficit while taking the debt ceiling off the table through the 2012 presidential election.

"By the time we got to June, it could have been Jesus in the White House and Buddha leading the House of Representatives and it's not clear to me that talks would have reached a substantially different conclusion," said Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"I didn't sign up for going mano a mano with the president."

House Speaker John Boehner

This program aired on July 30, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

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