Lawmakers have until the new Congress convenes to pass any compromise, and even the calendar mattered. Democrats said they had been told House Republicans might reject a deal until after Jan. 1, to avoid a vote to raise taxes before they had technically gone up and then vote to cut taxes after they had risen.

Nor was any taxpayer likely to feel any adverse impact if legislation is signed and passed into law in the first two or three days of 2013 instead of the final hours of 2012.

Gone was the talk of a grand bargain of spending cuts and additional tax revenue in which the two parties would agree to slash deficits by trillions of dollars over a decade.

Now negotiators had a more cramped goal of preventing additional damage to the economy in the form of higher taxes across the board -- with some families facing increases measured in the thousands of dollars -- as well as cuts aimed at the Pentagon and hundreds of domestic programs.

Republicans said they were willing to bow to Obama's call for higher taxes on the wealthy as part of a deal to prevent them from rising on those less well-off.

Democrats said Obama was sticking to his campaign call for tax increases above $250,000 in annual income, even though he said in recent negotiations he said he could accept $400,000. There was no evidence of agreement even at the higher level.

There were indications from Republicans that estate taxes might hold more significance for them than the possibility of higher rates on income.

One senior Republican, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, said late Friday he was "totally dead set" against Obama's estate tax proposal, and as if to reinforce the point, Blunt mentioned the issue before any other in his broadcast remarks. "Small businesses and farm families don't know how to deal with the unfair death tax, a tax that the president and congressional leaders have threatened to expand to include even more family farms and even more small businesses," he said.

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