Reaching Obama at Camp David by phone, Boehner informed the president that their impasse over taxes was irreconcilable. A tax increase as envisioned by Obama, approximately $800 billion out of a package that would save more than $4 trillion, would never be approved in the increasingly conservative House.
What began with the two men riding together in a golf cart for more than four hours during a round at Andrews Air Force Base ended three weeks later with them literally a few hundred miles apart and stuck in ideological gridlock. Instead of a grand bargain, Obama and Boehner are now struggling to find a palatable mix of smaller spending cuts and revenue increases that they can sell to lawmakers in their respective parties. Unless Congress acts to raise the $14.3 trillion legal limit on the debt, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner has said, the government will begin to default on its obligations after Aug. 2.
Obama and Boehner thought they had a chance to reach beyond the hyper-partisan politics of this era. Since mid-June, they have held several secret meetings at the White House and had numerous back-channel talks.
Far from becoming fast friends, the unlikely duo had instead come to see this as a rare moment that brought together their mutual interests, according to their friends and advisers. If only they could demonstrate leadership on what is arguably the most important political compromise of the past three decades, both could benefit, those friends and advisers said. Obama could recapture some of the independent voters who have drifted away from him over the past two years, and Boehner could show that his new GOP majority is trying to save, not destroy, popular entitlement programs.
With the bigger deal all but dead, Obama and Boehner have just days to persuade their cohorts to agree to a smaller plan so there is enough time to approve the legislation and avert default.
The two men were back at it Sunday evening, meeting for about 75 minutes in the White House Cabinet Room with other leaders. It is clear they won’t be locking arms together and jumping off a large boat, but both realize the federal government is on the verge of stumbling into another collapse of the financial markets. Any chance of averting that rests with them and their ability to find some compromise.
“John knows nothing’s going to get done without the president’s blessing, and the president knows he needs John to get anything done,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), a close friend of Boehner’s who also served in the Senate with Obama.