WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and Republican leader John Boehner will hit the golf course on Saturday with many hoping that over 18 holes they can knock Washington’s troubled debt limit talks out of the rough.
Obama and Boehner, Speaker of the House of Representatives, will play golf together for the first time and discuss how to reach a deal to raise the country’s $14.3 trillion debt limit by August 2 to avoid the first default in U.S. history.
U.S. presidents have been playing golf with friends and foes for years. They often find it a good way to talk candidly and -- between putts and drives, shanks and hooks -- unearth some common ground, apart from divots.
“It is an important time to relax and talk -- as long as you aren’t hitting it into the rough all day -- and do deals,” said James Thurber of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.
Democratic and Republican aides say any debt limit deal will ultimately have to be forged by Obama and Boehner, and the golf game is the first major step by them to open lines of communication in negotiations in which the two sides are sharply divided over how to reduce the country’s huge deficits.
“It is an opportunity for me and John to talk about some issues that are of importance to the American people,” Obama said of the golf game in a television interview.
Obama and Boehner will be joined in their game at a yet-to-be-disclosed golf course in the Washington area by Vice President Joe Biden and Ohio Republican Governor John Kasich.
Biden is an excellent golfer and a gifted schmoozer who has been leading debt-limit negotiations with a bipartisan group of lawmakers since May.
As former chairman of the House budget committee, Kasich is an expert on federal financial matters and, just as important to this game, a close friend of Boehner.
Republican Senator Richard Burr, who has played golf with Boehner, said he expects the speaker’s goal in the golf match will be to defeat the Democratic president.
“John does everything to win,” Burr said. “John is a very serious golfer, so I imagine he will engage the president in any conversation the president would like to. But John is very focused on his golf game.”
Boehner underscored that on Tuesday, telling reporters, “Saturday, is about golf and I hope it’s just about golf.”
A Republican aide acknowledged though that the debt talks would likely be discussed.
The White House says no debt deal will be struck during the golf outing, but the subject will be broached.
“This is a good way to begin the discussion with Boehner without everyone around. It’s a good thing to do. I don’t know whether it will work or not,” Thurber said.
Under the bonhomie that will be on show during the game, the stakes could not be higher. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has warned that failure to raise the borrowing cap by August 2 will trigger turmoil in the bond markets and economic “catastrophe.”
Biden’s talks have made progress, but his seven-member group has run into roadblocks on the issues of healthcare and taxes, making the involvement of Obama and Boehner even more critical.
The president and Boehner are both avid golfers, although the speaker -- with a handicap of 8 to Obama’s 17 -- is a far better player. Obama does not publicly release his scores but Golf Digest has interviewed his golfing partners to estimate his handicap.
Boehner, who has demanded “trillions” of dollars in spending cuts as the price of a deal to raise the borrowing cap, said he agreed with a suggestion he heard on TV that he could give Obama some strokes to make the game more even.
But the speaker warned the president that it could cost him “a trillion dollars (in cuts) per stroke.”
Boehner won’t be giving Biden any strokes.
With a handicap of just 6.3, the vice president is ranked 29th in Golf Digest’s top 150 Washington golfers -- 14 places above Boehner.
The 18-hole round, which can take roughly four hours, is also seen as an opportunity for Obama and Biden to get to know Boehner better. Biden in particular has little personal history with Boehner.
Obama and Boehner forged a respectful working relationship during negotiations this year to avoid a government shutdown, though both sides complain that communications are still poor.
Boehner told reporters on June 1 that the White House rarely telephones him, while administration officials privately gripe that Boehner has refused invitations to state dinners.
John Feehery, a former senior House Republican aide, said of the Obama-Boehner relationship: “I think they will be friendly. I‘m not sure they will ever be friends.”
Fifteen of the last 18 U.S. presidents have been golfers, and many have used the game to strike political deals. Lyndon Johnson rounded up votes for the 1965 Civil Rights Act on the golf course, while Bill Clinton often used the game to negotiate with allies and opponents.
But Obama, who has played more than 60 rounds of golf since becoming president, has until now rarely used the game as a means of politicking, preferring instead to play with friends.
In an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes in December, Boehner said: “Playing golf with someone is a great way to really get to know someone. You start trying to hit that little white ball. You can’t be somebody that you’re not because all of you shows up.”
If Boehner does post a better score in the game, he will be ignoring advice given by Lyndon Johnson: “In politics, never go out on a golf course and beat the president.”
Traditionally, out of respect to the commander-in-chief and his guests, the scores in a presidential golf match are not publicly disclosed.
Editing by Ross Colvin and Mohammad Zargham