One possibility is the fiscal cliff takes effect and taxes go up in January, then Congress steps in to bring tax rates back down for at least some people -- allowing them to say they're lowering taxes, even if taxes for some wealthy people are higher in 2013 than they were in 2012. But retiring Republican Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio calls that scenario little more than a political game.
"Nobody is willing to pull the trigger (because) everybody wants to play the blame game," LaTourette said. "This blame game is about to put us over the edge."
Polls show most back Obama
Obama and Democrats have leverage, based on the president's re-election last month and Democratic gains in the House and Senate in the new Congress. In addition, polls consistently show majority support for Obama's position on taxes.
The Gallup daily tracking poll released Wednesday showed 54% of respondents support Obama's handling of the fiscal cliff talks, compared with 26% who approve of Boehner's performance.
"We believe very strongly a reasonable package can get majorities in both (chambers)," a senior White House official said. "The only thing that would prevent it is if Sen. McConnell and Speaker Boehner don't cooperate."
Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist has vowed to back primary challenges against Republicans who violate his widely signed pledge not to raise taxes. Even if a deal is reached, he predicts budget showdowns will continue -- every time the government needs more money to operate.
"There the Republicans have a lot of clout because they can say we'll let you run the government for the next month, but you've got to make these reforms," he said this week.
On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told Congress the government would reach its borrowing limit at year's end, but could take steps to create what he called "headroom" for two months or so.
However, Geithner said uncertainty about the fiscal cliff and deficit negotiations make it hard to predict precisely how long government measures to address the situation will last.
Crisis two years in the making
The possibility of a fiscal cliff was set in motion over the past two years as a way to force action on mounting government debt.
Now, legislators risk looking politically cynical by seeking to weaken the measures enacted to try to force them to confront tough questions regarding deficit reduction, such as changes to government programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
The two sides seemingly had made progress early last week on forging a $2 trillion deficit reduction deal that included new revenue sought by Obama and spending cuts and entitlement changes desired by Boehner.
Obama's latest offer set $400,000 as the income threshold for a tax rate increase, up from his original plan of $250,000. It also had a new formula for the consumer price index -- called chained CPI -- that wraps in new assumptions on consumer habits in response to rising prices, such as seeking cheaper alternatives, and would result in smaller benefit increases.
Statistics supplied by opponents say the change would mean Social Security recipients would get $6,000 less in benefits over the first 15 years of chained CPI. Liberal groups have openly challenged the plan, calling it a betrayal of senior citizens who contributed all their lives for their benefits.
Boehner appeared to move on increased tax revenue, including higher rates on top income brackets and eliminating deductions and loopholes. But his inability to rally all House Republicans behind his plan last week raised questions about his role and what comes next.
Reid and other Senate Democrats say House Republicans must accept that an agreement will require support from legislators in both parties, rather than the GOP majority in the House pushing through a measure on its own.
Some House Republicans have said they would join Democrats and support the president's plan in hopes of moving past the volatile issue to focus on spending cuts and entitlement reforms they seek.