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WASHINGTON -- It's entirely possible that lawmakers and the White House will reach a deal that staves off an avalanche of tax increases and deep cuts in government programs before a Jan. 1 deadline. To do so, however, they'll have to resolve deep political and fiscal disagreements that have stymied them time after time despite repeated promises to overcome them.
For many economists, corporate leaders and politicians, it's unconscionable to let the government veer over the "fiscal cliff," which could drain $500 billion from the still-struggling economy next year. But even President Barack Obama says it could happen.
"Obviously we can all imagine a scenario where we go off the fiscal cliff," the president said last week. The likeliest cause, he suggested, would be "too much stubbornness in Congress," especially on the issue of taxes.
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Many Republicans in Congress counter that it's Obama who is too unyielding.
The knottiest issues facing the White House and congressional negotiators include:
Obama campaigned on a pledge to end the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for households making more than $250,000 a year. Republican leaders say the lower rates from 2001 and 2003 should remain in place for everyone, including the rich.
Both sides have dug in so deeply that it will be politically painful to back down. Republicans say tax increases on the rich would inhibit job growth. Democrats dispute that, and say it's only fair for the wealthiest to provide more revenue in this era of historically low tax burdens and a growing income disparity between the rich and the poor.
Most Republican lawmakers have signed a pledge not to allow tax rates to rise, even if they are scheduled to do so by law, as are the Bush-era cuts. Some Democrats say it may be necessary to let the Dec. 31 deadline expire and have everyone's tax rates revert to the higher, pre-Bush levels. Then, the argument goes, Republicans could vote to bring the rates back down for most Americans, but not the richest, without breaking their pledge.
The tax rate issue is especially thorny because it doesn't lend itself to Washington's favorite tactics for postponing hard decisions. Lawmakers routinely resort to "continuing resolutions" to end budget impasses by keeping spending levels unchanged for yet another year. Politically, no one wins or loses.