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By Laura MacInnis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Saturday's round of golf between President Barack Obama and Republican leader John Boehner has unusually high stakes for a friendly game, since any positive sentiment it yields may help lead to a debt deal.
Obama and Boehner, speaker of the House of Representatives, have a respectful working relationship but lack personal rapport, reflecting the entrenched differences between their parties on budgets and borrowing that have raised market fears about a possible U.S. default.
Their first golf outing is described by aides as a chance to get to know each other better and possibly set up a scenario where Democrats and Republicans find ways to agree to work together and raise the $14.3 trillion limit on the nation's debt.
"This is an opportunity that I think has value beyond the game," White House spokesman Jay Carney said, suggesting it was helpful for the leaders to mull ideas in an informal setting.
"It may move you a little bit closer toward the kind of compromise that we need to get the things done that the American people expect us to get done," Carney said. "If it takes a few hours out on the golf course to help that process, I think it's a worthwhile thing to do."
Absent a deal to allow the nation to issue more debt, the Treasury Department has warned that the government will begin defaulting on obligations on Aug. 2.
Brendan Buck, spokesman for Boehner, acknowledged that debt and deficits would likely be discussed on the green but said tough decisions on spending cuts would be left for lawmakers.
"I imagine that they will chat about some policy issues, but I would try to separate this round of golf from any type of serious negotiating session," Buck said. "It's mainly an opportunity to have a social outing and play some golf."
U.S. presidents have played golf with friends and foes for years. 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 rarely used the game as a means of politicking, preferring to play with friends.
Obama and Boehner will be joined at a yet-to-be-disclosed golf course in the Washington area by Vice President Joe Biden and Ohio Republican Governor John Kasich, an expert on federal financial matters and a friend of the speaker.
Biden has been leading debt limit negotiations since May. His bipartisan group of lawmakers is due to meet three or four times next week, with healthcare and taxes among the tricky issues to be resolved before the Aug. 2 deadline.
Obama and Boehner are expected to step in eventually to get to a final deal, given the chasm between the parties on how to come up with the budget savings that would provide lawmakers political cover to raise the debt ceiling.
Julian Zelizer, a professor at Princeton University, said both Boehner and Obama needed to appear to be trying to reach a solution on the debt ceiling, but warned Saturday's game may not yield much in Washington's current fractious climate.
"Both parties are really stuck in," he said. "It's hard to overcome all the forces that make partisanship so strong on Capitol Hill. It's hard for a golf outing to overcome that."
In contrast to the U.S. Open golf tournament, which is expected to draw tens of thousands of spectators on Saturday to its third round in Bethesda, Maryland, outside Washington, the politicians will play away from the public eye, with limited exposure to the press.
Obama and Boehner are both avid golfers, although the speaker -- with a handicap of 8 to Obama's 17 -- is a better player. Obama does not publicly release his scores but Golf Digest has interviewed his golfing partners to estimate his handicap.
With a handicap of 6.3, Biden ranks 29th among Golf Digest's top 150 Washington golfers, 14 places above Boehner.
Traditionally, out of respect to the president and his guests, the scores in a presidential golf match are not publicly disclosed.
(Additional reporting by Larry Fine, Thomas Ferraro and Tim Reid; Editing by Peter Cooney)
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