WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The spending cut pact that stopped a government shutdown may not make Barack Obama and John Boehner friends, but their relationship improved in ways that could help them mold compromises in battles to come.
The president and the speaker of the House of Representatives have never had a close bond -- and supporters from their respective parties probably prefer it that way.
Despite their differences, however, both men showed a common desire to avoid having the government close down, and their ability to forge a deal may bode well for future agreements on the 2012 budget, the debt ceiling and deficit.
After Republicans won control of the House in November congressional elections, Obama pledged to work harder to reach out to the opposition party.
Critics say he got off to a slow start building bridges in the fiscal 2011 budget debate but, late or not, came on strong on Tuesday, calling Boehner and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to the first of several White House meetings.
At one of those sit-downs on Wednesday night, after the president had returned from a campaign-style event in New York, they pored over print-outs of the so-called “policy riders” that would have denied funding to programs such as Obama’s healthcare reform law and greenhouse gas regulation.
“The speaker chided us about maybe we wanted to find a faster copy machine,” said one official present for the meeting in the Oval Office, describing a long wait while a White House official made copies of the documents.
“The president said we were doing it on mimeograph.”
That levity was missing during a morning call two days later when the president told Boehner an agreement reached between them on the scope and make-up of spending cuts was not being reflected in lower level talks among staff.
“The president called Speaker Boehner ... and said, ‘you know, I‘m the president of the United States, you’re the speaker of the House. We are the two most consequential leaders in the United States government,'” one administration official told reporters.
“We love our staffs, but this is about us,'” the official quoted Obama as saying. “We had a discussion and we need today, if we have any hope of keeping the government open, for from this point forward what we talked about last night ... to be reflected in the negotiations.”
Roughly 12 hours later, around 10:30 p.m. on Friday the two sides reached a deal, agreeing to cut $38 billion in spending during the last six months of this fiscal year.
That result came at least in part because of the talks and strengthening -- if not strong -- relationship between Boehner and Obama.
“They have a lot of respect for each other. I think they appreciate that the good of (the) nation requires a productive working relationship,” said a person close to Boehner.
“They both believe the other operates in good faith. I think they are friendly, but not quite good friends at this point. Maybe some day.”
Obama called Boehner late Friday night to thank him for his work -- a gesture the White House hoped would show Obama’s desire to foster a friendly co-existence in Washington.
“Hopefully it is a foundation that can be built on,” an administration official told reporters at the White House after the budget deal. “It should give us some faith that we can have more episodes of compromise and good work for the American people in the weeks and months ahead.”
Analysts said the talks showed the start of stronger relations.
“I doubt Obama and Boehner will be vacationing together any time soon, but at least they’ve forged a working relationship that has been tested by a brinkmanship crisis,” said Larry Sabato, political science professor at the University of Virginia.
“Given the much greater budget challenges ahead, they’ll have to continue to build on this beginning. Neither one can accomplish much without the other. The voters decided that, and the president and speaker have clearly realized that.”
Additional reporting by Alister Bull; Editing by Todd Eastham