The president left a message, and waited.
Thursday evening turned to Friday morning. Morning turned to afternoon. Until then, President Obama said, he had believed a major agreement was close.
“Up until sometime early today,” he told reporters in a hastily called late-day news conference, “when I couldn’t get a phone call returned.”
By then, everything was in pieces. Boehner had called back and said he was backing out of the talks, blaming Obama for seeking increases in tax revenue. Obama had gone on television to blame Boehner, saying he had been “left at the altar” for the second time in a month.
The grand bargain was, apparently, dead — again.
Those 24 hours were the most dramatic in a weeks-long showdown, one that started as an effort to get the nation’s fiscal house in order but has also become a test of whether a government divided between hostile parties can function.
By Friday evening, as aides to each man recounted their versions of the same long day, a hopeful moment seemed to have vanished. The two sides seemed more divided and distrustful than ever. The only thing that had moved forward was the clock, ticking down to an Aug. 2 deadline.
“Sometimes it’s good to back away from the tree and take a look at the forest,” Boehner said at day’s end. “And yesterday afternoon, after the president demanded more revenue in this package, I came back . . . away from the tree to take a look at the forest.”
Friday’s events underlined how much this massive drama boils down to a story of two men. Twice in the past month, Boehner and Obama have been drawn together by the prospect of a sweeping deal — and then pulled apart by that deal’s potential price.
Aides said Friday was the culmination of talks between Boehner and the White House that began July 15, six days after Boehner pulled out of earlier discussions in a dispute over taxes.
By this week, aides said, Obama and Boehner were deep in the weeds of a potential agreement. In all, its provisions might have shaved about $4 trillion off the national debt over 10 years, which is $14.3 trillion and growing.
The deal, as envisioned by the two sides, would work in two steps. A relatively simple bill, short enough to hammer out in the next week, would have raised the debt ceiling and cut spending in the near term.
Then, Congress would have to work out broader changes to the tax code and huge entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
Among the ideas that seemed to be agreed upon:
●$1.2 trillion in cuts to “discretionary” spending, which includes the budgets of federal agencies.
●$250 billion in savings from Medicare. These might have been achieved by altering premiums for some programs, reducing payments to hospitals, and raising the eligibility age from 65 to 67 over time.