WASHINGTON -- With Congress poised to miss the Dec. 31 fiscal cliff deadline -- and no viable compromise on the table -- President Barack Obama is meeting Friday with the four top congressional leaders.
There are only hours left to make a deal.
While the Senate was at work Thursday, the House was not. Members were told on Thursday afternoon to return to Washington for votes that could start at 6:30 p.m. Sunday.
Between Sunday night and midnight Monday -- which would make for a historic New Year's Eve session -- is a small amount of time to finalize legislation and have votes -- even for some stopgap measure -- if by chance there was a deal to be made. And nothing was shaping up as promising on Thursday night.
"I don't know time-wise how it could happen now," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) from the Senate floor.
So be braced for going over that fiscal cliff unless some pathways toward a deal are developed over the weekend. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are huddling at 3 p.m. in the Oval Office with Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Reid meets up with Boehner after he peppered him with insults on Thursday in a floor speech, with his comments getting personal. Reid accused Boehner of running a "dictatorship" in the House with Boehner caring "more about keeping his speakership than about keeping the nation on a firm financial footing."
To which Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck replied, Reid "should talk less and legislate more."
The political and policy problem is that there are no legislative proposals that could win approval in both chambers.
Boehner is governing under the "Hastert Rule," named for former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), which means a piece of legislation gets called for a vote only if the ruling party wants it passed. With the rule, Boehner is hostage to about 20 hard-core anti-tax Republicans -- a few of whom won't be around after next Thursday, when the new Congress gets sworn in.
Reid is bound by a Senate rule mandating 60 votes for passage, forcing him to work with Republicans to get that supermajority. That's why if a deal is to be made, it will probably start in the Senate.
Prospects are not promising. A spokesman for Boehner said, "Tomorrow, Speaker Boehner will attend a meeting with congressional leaders at the White House, where he will continue to stress that the House has already passed legislation to avert the entire fiscal cliff, and now the Senate must act." However, that measure passed with only GOP votes.
A spokesman for McConnell said, "Sen. McConnell has been invited to the White House tomorrow to further discuss the president's proposals on the fiscal cliff. He is eager to hear from the president."
Going over the cliff may make it easier to forge a deal -- which may end up more of a short-term Band-Aid than a long-term solution tackling serious cuts in spending.
If Congress does nothing by Dec. 31, then everyone faces federal income tax hikes in 2013 and a series of spending cuts -- spread over 10 years -- kicks in. Even with a deal, by the way, paychecks will be smaller in 2013 because no one in Congress or the Obama White House is talking about extending the payroll tax cuts in place for the past two years, letting you keep more of your money because of reduced payments for Social Security.
While bargaining continues over the income cut-off: $250,000, or $400,000 or $1 million, a vote before Dec. 31 would raise taxes for some top earners. Once the automatic hikes occur, a January vote, whether in the current or new Congress, would be for a tax cut for most people -- which for some Republicans would be easier to do politically.
Another reason: The first thing the new Congress does on Jan. 3 is elect a new Speaker. Boehner may have an easier negotiating hand in this fiscal cliffhanger once he is re-elected.