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Cold Obama-Boehner bond strains negotiations

House speaker, president have little in common

House Speaker John A. Boehner and President Obama have a distant relationship, and played golf together just once.

Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press/File 2012

House Speaker John A. Boehner and President Obama have a distant relationship, and played golf together just once.

WASHINGTON — At a closed-door Capitol meeting on Wednesday, 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 Obama.

He pretended to drag on a cigarette like the chain-smoking speaker, and blew away smoke and Obama’s tax demands in one raspy retort: ‘‘Ain’t gonna happen.’’

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

A day later, an Obama adviser was recalling the failed budget talks between the president and Boehner in the middle of 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 51-year-old president and the 63-year-old speaker 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 memories and mutual recriminations of their failure 18 months ago, people on both sides say.

Boehner has proposed raising top rates for earners earning more than $1 million, a person familiar with the negotiations said. But Obama, who wants higher top rates for households earning more than $250,000, has not accepted the offer, this person said.

The proposal, however, indicates new progress in talks that had appeared stalled.

The person would only discuss the plan on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.

Boehner is still seeking more spending cuts than Obama has proposed, particularly in mandatory health care spending. Boehner has asked for a long-term increase in eligibility age for Medicare and for lower costs-of-living adjustments for Medicare. Boehner’s tax proposal was first reported by Politico. A Boehner aide would not comment on the report.

An Oval Office meeting last Sunday was their first one alone since that meeting 18 months ago. They met again on Thursday night to try to break the impasse before Boehner went home to Ohio for the weekend, leaving it unclear whether they made any progress.

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

Boehner has told friends, ‘‘We just don’t speak the same language.’’ Obama told the author Bob Woodward that if the speaker ‘‘had more control of his caucus,’’ they would have sealed that deal in 2011. Referring to two past Republican leaders, Obama added, ‘‘I could have done a deal with Bob Dole. I could have even done a deal with Newt Gingrich.’’

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

A Republican aide familiar with the talks said the president has spent long stretches of time trying to persuade Boehner of the wisdom of his positions, which the speaker views as ‘‘an enormous waste of time,’’ the aide said.

In 2011 Boehner had the edge as Obama faced a difficult reelection campaign and needed Republicans’ support to increase the borrowing limit.

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