WASHINGTON -- President Obama and members of the Senate were set to return to Washington on Thursday to make a last-ditch effort at a deal to avert more than a half-trillion dollars in automatic tax increases and spending cuts just five days before they start kicking in.
Even with so much at stake, there appeared to be little sense of urgency. Aides said most senators were not likely to be back on Capitol Hill before Thursday evening. And while the House may technically be in session, Republican leaders told members last week that they would be given a 48-hour notice before they should return, and that notice had not yet been given.
Senate Democratic and Republican leaders have also not talked in days, according to aides on both sides. But lawmakers continue to say a deal is possible to avert the "fiscal cliff," when taxes leap to Clinton-era rates on Jan. 1 and $100 billion in across-the-board cuts to military and domestic programs take effect the next day.
"Nobody wants to go over this fiscal cliff. It will damage our economy. It will hurt every taxpayer. It will be the largest tax increase in history, affect everybody," Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican of Florida, warned on CNN on Wednesday. "And anyone who's watching who thinks, oh, this isn't going to impact me, you will find out that it will."
After a conference call Wednesday among House Republican leaders, the top four House Republicans issued a statement calling on the Senate to consider measures previously passed by the House to head off the tax increases and cuts. If the Senate is able to pass a measure with changes and send it back to the House, they said, the House will consider it, suggesting that the Republican leadership was willing to bring a bill to a vote even if some Republicans balked.
"The House will take this action on whatever the Senate can pass, but the Senate first must act," said the statement from Speaker John A. Boehner and his top three lieutenants.
The statement showed that lawmakers on both sides of the issue were taking steps to make avoid being seen as the impediment to a final deal.
Congressional aides involved in the negotiations say the prospects for a deal dimmed considerably after the debacle in the House last Thursday, when Mr. Boehner could not muster the votes for legislation to extend expiring Bush-era tax cuts for income below $1 million a year. With his "Plan B" in tatters, Mr. Boehner met privately with House Republicans last Thursday night, delivered the Serenity Prayer, and declared it up to the Senate now to find a way forward.
But publicly, leaders in the Senate are just as far apart. Senate Republican leaders say President Obama should press Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, to take up legislation passed by the House that would extend all of the Bush tax cuts for a year, and another House bill that would cancel $50 billion in military cuts and shift those cuts onto domestic programs.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Reid have repeatedly said that will never happen. Since the president signed legislation in late 2010 extending all the Bush-era tax cuts for two years, he has never strayed from his vow to veto any legislation that extends them again for affluent households. The president and the Senate majority leader want the Senate to take up legislation it has already passed to extend the tax cuts on income below $250,000, and attach an extension of expiring unemployment benefits and a provision to temporarily suspend the budget cuts while talks on a larger deficit reduction deal continue next year.
But Democrats say they will move forward only if Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, can assure that either the bill can pass with a simple majority or that he will not press Republicans to vote against it on a 60-vote threshold. The leader's spokesman, Don Stewart, said he could offer no such assurances.
Besides, Mr. Stewart said from the Capitol, there has been "no outreach from Democrats, here or from the White House" to formally make such a request.
Still, Democrats do appear to be readying for one last push. Steps were being taken in Hawaii to name a new senator as early as Wednesday to fill the seat of Daniel Inouye, whose funeral was on Sunday. A quick decision by Gov. Neal Abercrombie, a Democrat, to fill the seat could provide Democrats with a needed vote.
Before his death, Mr. Inouye wrote the governor and recommended that Representative Colleen Hanabusa be named his successor. Tulsi Gabbard, who was elected to the House in November, is openly campaigning for the Senate post even before she is sworn in to the lower chamber.
Despite the imminent return of the Senate, many lawmakers now say no deal will be made until after the deadline. On Jan. 3, Mr. Boehner is likely to be re-elected speaker for the 113th Congress. After that roll call, he may feel less pressure from his right flank against a deal. For its part, the Senate may simply be out of time.
Without unanimous agreement, Mr. Reid would have to call up a deal and file for a vote just to take it up. He could then be forced to press for another vote to cut off debate before final passage. If forced to jump through all those hoops, the 112th Senate could expire before the final votes could be cast.
"I think there's some chance that we get a deal done in the early weeks of January, which technically means you're going over the cliff," Representative Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut, said on CNBC on Wednesday morning.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.