WASHINGTON — The grand bargain to reduce the federal debt largely depends on whether President Barack Obama or House Speaker John Boehner blinks first.
Both have a history of compromise, and they've been bonding lately on the golf course and in private White House talks.
But their conciliatory natures are about to face a severe test. Can Boehner, despite a strong conservative voting record, satisfy more hard-core conservatives who are demanding that no taxes be increased? Can Obama cool the ire of liberals who want Social Security and Medicare protected?
"The key to their success will lie in their relationship with their followers," said Steven Schier, a congressional expert at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
As the leader of his party, Obama has enormous influence over the political fate of congressional Democrats. So far, they've given him ample, though not always overwhelming, support on key issues. There have been misgivings over his willingness last year to extend tax breaks for the wealthy and his April agreement with Republicans to cut billions from spending.
Boehner has strong clout over the 240-member House of Representatives Republican caucus. Next to the president, no single individual has as much power in Washington. House rules make it difficult for individual members to influence policy; to do so, a member needs key committee assignments or a leadership post, and the speaker controls those.
But both men have to watch their flanks. Liberals have signaled that they're impatient with Obama; 108 of the House's 192 Democrats opposed the April spending cuts. In December, after the president agreed to extend tax cuts for the wealthy, rates due to expire at the end of that month, liberals were livid
Now rank-and-file Democrats are concerned again. When reports surfaced earlier this week that the White House might consider changes in Social Security, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., issued a stern warning.
"We do not support cuts in benefits to Social Security and Medicare," she said flatly.
Boehner faces challenges from the opposite corner. Die-hard conservatives have been ascendant in the House Republican caucus for years, and they don't consider Boehner a true enough believer. He lost a leadership position in 1998, and he began his most recent leadership climb in 2006 not as the conservative favorite but as the plain-spoken, collegial alternative to a House Republican leadership team that had been embarrassed by lobbying scandals. A "fresh face," Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said at the time.
Boehner came with a reputation as a deal-maker, working in 2001-02 with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., to craft historic legislation to overhaul the nation's education system. Conservatives were appalled, but many colleagues viewed Boehner affectionately, appreciating his ability to get things done.
Boehner, said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., is a conservative and realist who will "get the best possible deal you can in a negotiation."
But he has to cope with a persistent thunder from the right, where House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., is seen as commanding significant loyalty from more ideological conservatives. Many of the House's 87 Republican freshmen were elected with the backing of the conservative tea party, and they're wary of any deal that gives anything on taxes.
"No tax increases," Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., said firmly. "That's unacceptable. It's not a good thing to do while we have a fragile recovery."
The tea party is watching, closely.
"It's not that Boehner's an evil person or a bad person," said Judson Phillips, the founder of Tea Party Nation. "I just think he's one of those personalities who wants to be liked. I think he's eager to please and who's going to try to please his liberal friends Barack Obama and Joe Biden. No deal is better than a bad deal."
Phillips said he feared that Boehner was "going to come out in a press conference waving a piece of paper like Neville Chamberlain saying, 'We've got fiscal responsibility in our time.' " Chamberlain, the prime minister of Great Britain, agreed in 1938 to allow Germany to control the Sudetenland in the former Czechoslovakia, and was criticized for appeasing Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
Boehner still commands sizable Republican support inside and outside Congress.
"Republicans have a lot of confidence in John Boehner," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a five-term House veteran. "He has a very good sense of what's necessary, and if John Boehner comes to this conference and asks for their vote, he'll get it." Especially if Cantor and other House GOP leaders are by his side, Cole said.
Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, an advocacy group that favors a single-rate income tax, said conservative ire at Boehner was misplaced, a legacy of expectations among conservatives when they reached political positions of power.
"People who are disappointed in Boehner think we run the House, the Senate and the White House," he added. "One election doesn't put you in charge of everything."
Carleton College's Schier thought Obama would have an easier time corralling Democrats. "What Obama's got going for him is he let the (Democratic) leaders be in the driver's seat," Schier said.
In 2009-10, Pelosi, then House speaker, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., were largely in charge of strategy on the two key White House initiatives, health care and the economic stimulus. Allowing them to do that, Schier said, "created an enormous amount of good will."
Boehner has a more nuanced challenge. Cantor has solidified his conservative credentials with his rigid, no-tax approach, and by quitting bipartisan debt-reduction talks on June 23.
But Cantor also has signaled a willingness to deal. He participated in those talks for seven weeks, and he developed a working relationship with Vice President Biden. On Wednesday, he opened the door a sliver on taxes by saying he'd consider ending some corporate tax breaks if they were offset by tax cuts.
Ironically, liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans both point to negotiations in April that averted a government shutdown as to why they have reservations about Obama and Boehner sticking to their guns.
"He didn't show me much," said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., a 12-term veteran. "We don't know where the president's bottom line is, and that means he can be pushed. I want him to stand and say, 'I've been nice to you, I've talked to you, but your demands don't end.' "
Still, the key players remain Obama and Boehner. They played golf June 18, spoke before the president's address to the nation June 22 on Afghanistan, and spoke again last Sunday. During Wednesday's "Twitter town hall," Obama fielded a question about job creation from Boehner.
George Edwards, the editor of Presidential Studies Quarterly, sees compromise ahead.
"The president is a realist," he said, "who knows he has to compromise to achieve change, and to demonstrate competence in governing."
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