How will that question be resolved?
Republicans have been adamant that no solution should include a tax increase, even on higher income taxpayers. Romney has embraced that stance. But in a recent panel discussion, Romney economic adviser Kevin Hassett pointed out that the countries that have been most successful at reining in their deficits have been the ones that accomplished it with a mix of 85 percent cuts and 15 percent tax increases.
Obama has criticized Romney for proposing a 20 percent cut in marginal tax rates, arguing it would either lead to higher federal deficits or to higher taxes for the middle class. But Hassett indicated that if Romney and Congress were unable to find enough savings by eliminating tax loopholes and breaks to cover the lost revenue, the tax cut would be adjusted so it wouldn't be so steep.
Obama officials say they are optimistic that they can reach a sweet spot of compromise that restrains deficits over time but is not so austere that it damages the recovery. Obama and his aides insist they will not simply buy time or agree to a short extension of all Bush-era tax cuts. Obama has said the election will help resolve the issue.
"I'm hoping that after the smoke clears and the election season's over that that spirit of cooperation comes more to the fore," the president told CBS' "60 Minutes" last week.
But Harris, the Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist, said the election may not prove a decisive factor on a debt compromise. That's because Romney has not specified what government spending or tax loopholes he intends to eliminate, and Obama has not offered details on what entitlement cuts he would undertake.
"The two parties are offering all sugar and no medicine solutions," Harris said. "Neither party comes out of the election with a clear mandate. You only have a mandate if you have specific proposals."
The business sector is anxious -- and weighing in.
Boeing chairman and CEO Jim McNerney told reporters in a conference call that chief executives "wouldn't be uncomfortable" with some tax increases if the overall package included larger spending cuts. He specifically cited a proposal by a commission headed by former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles that would provide $3 in spending cuts for every $1 in additional revenues.
Success is critical.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has concluded that the drastic cuts and tax increases that Congress and Obama agreed to confront at year's end to force action on a more temperate debt-control package would lead to a recession in 2013 and drive up unemployment to 9 percent or more.
If the "cliff" is avoided with a more modest package that doesn't strike so fast, economists see a much rosier scenario. Moody's Analytics projects gross domestic product, the main measure of the economy, to grow at a 4 percent clip or more in 2014, compared to less than 2 percent so far this year, and unemployment to fall to 5.6 percent in 2016.
Associated Press Economics Writer Christopher S. Rugaber contributed to this article.