WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hard-nosed rivals with tough backgrounds, John Boehner and Harry Reid are locked in a bitter fight over spending cuts but aides say they have a good relationship that may offer the best hope of avoiding a government shutdown.
Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, have been negotiating on and off for weeks, and now face a Friday midnight deadline when funds will run out.
Reid says Democrats have met Republican demands more than half way by agreeing to about $33 billion in cuts this fiscal year to trim the hefty deficit.
But Boehner, under pressure from some House Republicans, is demanding more.
Failure to reach a deal would shut down large parts of the federal government, putting hundreds of thousands of people out of work, closing national parks and museums, and stalling mortgage and small business loans.
While the rhetoric between the two sides regularly flares up, the two central figures are keeping the talks going.
“One reason there are still negotiations is that Reid and Boehner can talk to each other,” a Republican aide said. “Unlike some members around here, they don’t hate each other.”
“Reid knows how to fight, but he would rather get things done. He sees Speaker Boehner similarly minded and I think that’s one of the things that Reid respects about him,” a Democratic aide said.
The two men routinely swap proposals via telephone and through staff. When they negotiate face to face, they generally do so in their offices and are joined by only two others — the heads of the House and Senate appropriations committees.
For the second time in two days, Boehner and Reid went to the White House late on Wednesday to confer with President Barack Obama. Afterward, standing together before reporters, they said progress had been made, but that differences remain and they would continue to work on a getting a deal.
Reid, 71, and Boehner, 61, came a long way to earn White House invitations.
Reid is a one-time amateur boxer from a Nevada desert town. His father was a hardrock miner, and his mother took in laundry from the local brothels to make ends meet.
Reid was first elected to Congress in 1982 after battling organized crime as Nevada’s state gaming commissioner, and he has been the Democratic leader in the Senate since 2005.
The son of a bar owner, Boehner grew up in Ohio with 11 brothers and sisters. He worked his way through college as a janitor, and he ran his own small business before being elected to the House in 1990.
Boehner became Speaker in January after Republicans won the House from Obama’s Democrats with the help of the conservative Tea Party movement demanding deep cuts in U.S. spending.
He is now drawing the wrath of many Republican lawmakers linked to the Tea Party movement who complain that he hasn’t demanded deep enough cuts and say they may challenge him in the 2012 election.
Some Republicans say a government shutdown would be better than ignoring the problem of a ballooning budget deficit, but Boehner clearly wants to reach a deal. Reid’s team says he appreciates that.
“I don’t know if he (Reid) likes him, but he respects him. He sees him as someone who’s largely negotiated in good faith,” a Democratic aide said.
“Reid and Boehner are both adults and can have an open discussion of where each is, where their members are and what it will take to come to an agreement,” a Republican aide said.
While the two men accuse each other’s party of being financially reckless, they have refrained from ripping into each other and their teams think they’ll come up with a compromise agreement in time.
“They’ll get a deal. That’s what people want,” another Republican aide said.
Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Andy Sullivan; Editing by Kieran Murray