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Obama, Boehner locked in another budget battle as deadlines loom

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) (L) talks to U.S. President Barack Obama during a meeting with bipartisan Congressional leaders in
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) (L) talks to U.S. President Barack Obama during a meeting with bipartisan Congressional leaders in

By Steve Holland and Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner are gripped in another budget battle, but so far the two are shouting at each other from a distance instead of sitting down and negotiating as crucial deadlines rapidly approach.

While they might be playing a waiting game, the fact that they are not talking in a meaningful way - as they have during previous showdowns on fiscal issues - is itself becoming a side issue.

Twin deadlines face Washington, with a budget deal needed by September 30 to avoid a federal government shutdown and a separate agreement necessary by mid-October to prevent the United States from defaulting on its national debt.

Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, said on Thursday Obama was willing to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Syria, "but he won't engage with the Congress on a plan that deals with the deficits that threaten our economy."

White House spokesman Jay Carney repeated that Obama "will be in conversations with congressional leaders in the coming days," but did not say when, or with whom, joking during his daily briefing that Boehner might have "Putin envy."

From Obama's perspective, Boehner is either unable or unwilling to round up the stampede of House Republican conservatives who want to gut funding for Obama's signature healthcare law as part of any agreement on the budget and extending the U.S. debt limit.

Privately, some Obama administration officials harbor doubts as to whether a public meeting between Obama and Boehner would help Boehner gain any influence over conservatives and bring them along with any deal.

"Does anybody really believe that sitting down with Boehner will make his efforts easier to deal with his crazies?" asked one administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"We're sympathetic, but just because he's in a difficult position doesn't relieve him from the responsibility to do what is right for the country and not just the Tea Party," the official added, referring to the conservative political movement.

From Boehner's perspective, it is Obama who is in denial about the need to negotiate over budget policy, specifically raising the U.S. borrowing limit, a vote that had been routine in years past but is now fraught with partisan peril every time it comes up.

"We still have no indication that they (administration officials) plan to engage in any way on the debt limit," said a senior Republican congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity.

'RUN OUT THE CLOCK'

Since negotiations would offer Obama a chance to restore some of the $84 billion in automatic spending cuts - known as "sequestration" - that took place this year, the president may be missing a valuable opportunity, the aide said.

"They're trying to run out the clock on us and hope that we blink," the aide added.

While it is possible the two sides can avoid a government shutdown on September 30 - the end of the current fiscal year - by reaching a deal on a three-month extension of current spending, the debt limit fight figures to be more serious and damaging, with the potential for a default carrying the risk of unleashing chaos in financial markets.

The lack of communication is particularly problematic because of the current low-profile of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who has played the broker in some past fiscal fights. That has gotten him in some political trouble at home in Kentucky, and may be one factor in why he is facing a conservative challenger in his 2014 re-election bid.

McConnell has yet to emerge in a meaningful way in the current showdown.

Last week, at a meeting on budget matters of "the Big Four" congressional leaders - McConnell, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Boehner and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi - the Kentucky Republican did not have much to say, a senior Democratic aide said.

"He makes it tough for us to work with him. We don't know where he is," the Democratic aide said.

If history is any guide, one side will blink in the end. Since Democratic President Bill Clinton came out the winner from a 1995 government shutdown battle with a Republican Congress, the conventional wisdom is that Obama would be seen as the victor in any such battle this year.

"I would imagine that the administration has calculated that they will probably come out of that wreckage a little better than the Republicans," said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri.

"Right now I don't think they have any idea who they can talk to among the Republicans."

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Roberta Rampton and Jeff Mason; Editing by Fred Barbash and Will Dunham)

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