John Boehner
Alex Brandon  /  AP
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, takes part in a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday to discuss the upcoming vote to repeal the health care bill.
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updated 1/20/2011 9:54:22 AM ET 2011-01-20T14:54:22

House Speaker John Boehner's decision to skip the White House state dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao, following his declining to join President Barack Obama aboard Air Force One last week, has again raised the question of whether the two political leaders are having trouble getting along.

Boehner's office dismissed suggestions that Boehner's empty seat at the White House affair was in any way a snub. Two other congressional leaders, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, also sent their regrets because of various logistical reasons. Boehner is meeting Hu on Capitol Hill Thursday morning for substantive talks.

Story: Hu: China no military threat, seeks win-win with U.S.

Boehner has turned down dinner invitations from both Republican and Democratic presidents, his office said. Those included the two other state dinners held by the Obama White House, with the leaders of Mexico and India.

But there persists a perception that Boehner, never close personally to Obama, is keeping his distance physically as well. Last week Boehner declined a seat on Air Force One when Obama, joined by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, flew to Arizona to lead memorial services for the victims of the Tucson shooting attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

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Instead, while Obama was in Tucson last Wednesday, Boehner remained in Washington to lead the House in debating and passing a resolution honoring Giffords, who was critically wounded, and the six people who died in the attack. That evening he attended a reception for a candidate for Republican National Committee chairman.

Of course, free rides on Air Force One have not always been helpful to GOP speakers.

In 1995, House Speaker Newt Gingrich was criticized after complaining that he didn't get any face time with President Bill Clinton during a trip to Israel and had to exit by a back ramp and suggesting that his pique was one reason for the government shutdown that year.

Talk of distance between Boehner, Obama
There's never been a lot of common ground between Boehner, the blue-collar son of an Ohio bar owner, and Obama, the Hawaii-born son of a Kenyan scholar he barely knew. Boehner, 11 years Obama's senior, studied business at Xavier University; Obama studied law at Harvard Law School.

During the 2010 election campaign, Boehner said he felt no connection to Obama.

Story: A jazzy all-American state dinner for China's Hu

"When I talk about the real world, it doesn't seem to register" with Obama, Boehner said in a television interview.

But the two have talked numerous times since the election, and last November Obama called to wish the speaker-in-waiting a happy birthday.

"While they may disagree on policy, the speaker has a very cordial relationship with the president and he looks forward to discussing how best to start creating jobs and cutting spending as we move forward this year," said Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith.

Boehner did extend an invitation for Obama to publicly debate the issues with Republicans at a House GOP retreat last year, to the dismay of some Republicans who thought Obama dominated the conversation. The president wasn't invited back this year.

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Last month, when Obama accused Republicans of taking middle-class taxpayers hostage by demanding that tax cuts also be extended to the wealthy, Boehner said in an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes" that Obama had shown him "some disrespect." Obama, he added, was "engaging, certainly smart, brilliant" but "we come from different backgrounds and I think our view of the economy is also very different."

They do share one passion: golf. Boehner is an accomplished golfer, Obama an enthusiastic one, and both have talked of getting together for a round. "It's a great way to really get to know someone," Boehner told "60 Minutes."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: China human rights loom at state dinner

  1. Transcript of: China human rights loom at state dinner

    ANN CURRY, co-host: Chinese President Hu Jintao makes his way to Capitol Hill today following a star-studded state dinner at the White House . We've got NBC 's chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell joining us now with details. Hey, Andrea , good morning.

    ANDREA MITCHELL reporting: Good morning, Ann. On a day capped by that glittering state dinner with former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton , both attending, President Obama spoke of cooperation and friendly competition between the United States and China , all aimed at ironing out problems in a very complicated relationship. The White House spared no detail to welcome China 's leader. From the first lady, resplendent in red, a color traditionally thought to bring good luck in China , to the star-studded guest list. Foreign policy path-breakers from both parties, bankers, business leaders, and fashion icons. Yo-Yo Ma , Barbra Streisand with husband James Brolin . Her connection to China ?

    Ms. BARBRA STREISAND: I worked in a Chinese restaurant .

    MITCHELL: Jackie Chan, Michelle Kwan . But other than New Jersey 's governor, very few Republican politicians.

    Governor CHRIS CHRISTIE: Well, it just makes me unique once again.

    MITCHELL: The all-American menu, a five-star version of surf and turf, apple pie and ice cream. And the best of American jazz. Hospitality that even led to a breakthrough on panda diplomacy , extending China 's loan of Washington 's favorite Chinese imports.

    President BARACK OBAMA: Our National Zoo will continue to dazzle children and visitors with the beloved giant pandas.

    MITCHELL: Still, all the pomp and circumstance and personal diplomacy couldn't disguise fundamental disagreements over business and human rights .

    Pres. OBAMA: We come from very different cultures and with very different histories. We have some core views as Americans about the universality of certain rights.

    MITCHELL: President Hu offered a rare public admission.

    President HU JINTAO: The lock still needs to be down in China in terms of human rights .

    MITCHELL: And human rights advocate Kenneth Roth was invited to dinner.

    Mr. KENNETH ROTH (Human Rights Watch): I take the reason that I was invited as really a statement to President Hu .

    MITCHELL: None of that satisfied protesters or Congressional critics.

    Representative CHRIS SMITH (Republican, New Jersey): Let's not forget, China is the most egregious human rights violator in the world.

    MITCHELL: Most of the business of the summit was business. The president and top CEOs complained about China 's rampant piracy of software and movies, barriers to markets and currency manipulation. The two countries did announce $45 billion in new business deals, including the sale of 200 Boeing jets. The White House said all this would potentially produce 235,000 new American jobs .

    Pres. OBAMA: We want to sell you all kinds of stuff. We want to sell you planes, we want to sell you cars, we want to sell you software.

    MITCHELL: US officials said that China did make some concessions, lowering some trade barriers or at least promising to. But today the Chinese leader could find a tougher reception on Capitol Hill . He'll be meeting with the Speaker of the House John Boehner and with Senate leaders from both parties who chose not to attend the state dinner . Ann :

    CURRY: All right, Andrea , thank you, so much.

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