Obama and Boehner began talks about a deficit-reduction "grand bargain" in 2011. Boehner suggested new revenues of $800 billion over 10 years in exchange for reductions in entitlements and other programs. Obama and congressional Democrats demanded more revenue, and the talks ended.
It was never clear that Boehner could have persuaded his House GOP colleagues to support his ideas, which were short on detail in some areas. But his actions convinced many people that Boehner would like history to regard him as a Republican speaker who struck a politically courageous deal with a Democratic president to put the nation's fiscal house in better order.
Obama and Boehner tried again in late 2012. Boehner offered changes that he said would generate $1 trillion in new government revenue over 10 years in exchange for roughly the same level of spending cuts, including trims to entitlement programs.
Obama again sought somewhat higher revenue increases. He proposed smaller spending cuts than Boehner wanted. But he offered to slow the cost-of-living increases for Social Security benefits, which liberals consider a huge concession.
It's impossible to know if the deeply divided Congress would have enacted any of these plans. But some independent groups say the December gap was bridgeable, and they despair at the renewed partisanship.
Erskine Bowles, the former Clinton White House chief of staff who co-chaired a deficit-reduction commission, was grim-faced at a Feb. 19 forum in Washington. "The idea of a grand bargain is at best on life support," he said.
The other co-chairman, former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., was no cheerier. With Democrats keen on protecting retirement and health-care spending, and Republicans bent on averting income tax hikes, he said, neither side seems ready to make hard choices to curb deficit-spending.
"These guys here aren't interested in winning," Simpson said. "They're interested in making the other side lose — in fact, rubbing the other side's nose in it."
In interviews, House Republicans typically are most passionate when describing their opposition to income tax increases. Over the years that goal has risen from a GOP policy to a near-religion. House Republicans generally seem less passionate when calling for spending cuts, including entitlement reductions.
Many Democrats, meanwhile, say it's politically impossible for Obama to support trims to Medicare and Social Security without securing further tax increases on the rich — something he advocated consistently in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns.
The results frustrate groups that say a mix of new revenues and targeted spending cuts is the only feasible way to tame deficit spending.
Scott Lilly, a former House Appropriations Democratic staff director, said it's possible — though far from certain — that eventual public unhappiness with the sequester cuts will prompt House Republicans to agree to higher taxes on the wealthy. And that possibly could spur Democratic budget concessions.
"Until you go through that exercise," said Lilly, now at the Center for American Progress, "not only are they not willing to go for a big deal, I don't think there's any way a magician could put the pieces together at this point to make an offer."
Associated Press news survey specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.
Follow Charles Babington on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cbabington.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.