Path to Averting Government Shutdown

John Boehner

“Nope. Zero,” the president said to the speaker. Mr. Boehner tried again. “Nope. Zero,” Mr. Obama repeated. “John, this is it.” A long silence followed, said one participant in the meeting. “It was just like an awkward, ‘O.K., well, what do you do now?’ ”

That meeting broke without an agreement. But while Mr. Obama may have held tough on the abortion provision, he and the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, had already made a broader concession — agreeing to tens of billions of dollars in spending cuts that would have been unthinkable had Republicans not captured control of the House from Democrats in midterm elections last year.

For Mr. Boehner, the deal represents an early showcase of negotiating prowess, and an ability to balance the clamor of staunch conservatives in his party, who have little desire to compromise with Democrats, with the political imperative of securing real accomplishments. Even some Democrats said that in a deeply divided Washington, Mr. Boehner’s negotiations over this past chaotic week harked back to a time when party leaders were more willing to give ground and do business with each other.

“I don’t like his legislation, but I like the way he is running the House,” Mr. Reid said in an interview Saturday.

Though Mr. Boehner won significant ground and the applause of his caucus, his approach this week — like Mr. Obama’s — carries the risk that some will view him as too conciliatory, as illustrated by the 54 Republicans who voted against an earlier temporary spending bill, forcing the speaker to rely on votes from Democrats to get it through.

Both sides are declaring some victories, and details of the full impact of the cuts have yet to emerge. But interviews with White House and Congressional officials involved in the tense negotiations show just how down to the wire things got, and how up until virtually the last minute, officials at the highest levels were uncertain that they could prevent a remarkable shuttering of the government during wartime and a fragile economic recovery.

In the end, with the clock ticking toward a midnight Friday deadline, the White House sessions and the flurry of telephone calls between the president and the speaker gave way to a meeting of little-known aides at the Capitol, where a tentative deal was clinched Friday evening on roughly $38 billion in reductions for the balance of this fiscal year. That amounts to what the president himself acknowledged would be “the biggest annual spending cut in history.”

Several times White House and Democratic Congressional officials said they believed they had a deal; several times they were wrong. Republican officials said they were clear all along that nothing was set in stone until everything was agreed upon. On Friday afternoon, with television networks presenting clocks ticking down the minutes, an aide began setting up for a news conference in the White House Blue Room. Reporters and photographers were sequestered there, with hints that an announcement was imminent. They were there for six hours, as negotiations continued and the deal at times seemed as if it might fall apart.

In all, during the last four days of the budget showdown, Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner spent more time with each other — in person and on the phone — than they had during the entire course of Mr. Obama’s presidency.

Their first White House meeting of the week took place Tuesday, but it ran aground.

After returning from giving a speech in New York the following day, Mr. Obama met again with Mr. Boehner and Mr. Reid. The two sides were closer, but the “riders” — policy changes like the Planned Parenthood funding change — were now on the table.

Mr. Obama asked that they go through the riders one by one. A White House aide, Rob Nabors, dashed out of the Oval Office with a stack of 40 riders, and headed to a Xerox machine, “while the rest of us sat around waiting for the copies,” a senior White House official said. Mr. Boehner even joked at one point, chiding Mr. Obama about how he might want to find faster copier machines, prompting the president to mime cranking out a mimeograph.

During the frantic final 12 hours Friday, Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner were on the phone four times. The most pivotal came at 11:15 a.m.

Reporting was contributed by Jackie Calmes, Carl Hulse, Jennifer Steinhauer and Jeff Zeleny.

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