Although they met Sunday for the first time in more than three weeks -- signaling a new, potentially more productive stage of the negotiations -- there was no progress on the staff level ahead of that sit-down, according to Democratic and Republican sources.
The White House and Capitol Hill are now staring at a narrow set of options fraught with political and policy peril. The course they choose will set the tone for the 113th Congress, Boehner's speakership and Obama's second term.
Here is POLITICO's rundown of the most likely scenarios:
Go over the cliff
Yes, this remains a very real possibility.
"Oh, absolutely," Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said when asked during an interview with CNBC last week whether Obama was prepared to take it that far.
With less than two weeks left before Congress is scheduled to break for Christmas, both sides are locked into their positions.
Obama's stance has been steady: Boehner needs to agree that tax rates will rise on income over $200,000 for individuals.
But Boehner hasn't budged on taxes. Even when he does seem to indicate flexibility -- as he did Friday, when he declined to rule out putting a small rate increase on the table -- he pulls back.
Boehner was asked directly about supporting a 37 percent top rate and didn't say no. But his office later put out a clarifying statement: "As I've said many, many, many times: I oppose tax rate increases because tax rate increases cost American jobs. That has not changed and will not change."
The speaker wants Obama to make a serious offer on entitlement reform, something beyond the proposed cuts to Medicare providers that Geithner offered two weeks ago. But that hasn't happened.
All of this adds up to gridlock -- with massive real-world implications.
Income taxes would rise on all Americans. Spending on the Pentagon and many domestic programs would be slashed. The tax rates on inheritance and investment income from capital gains and dividends would spike. Doctors who serve Medicare patients would see their payments sliced. Unemployment benefits would dry up. And the economy could spin back into recession, depending on how long the impasse lasts.
Democrats are less worried about breaching the cliff because polls show voters would blame Republicans, who would be seen as forcing rates to go up on everybody to protect breaks for wealthier families.
House Republicans have begun looking at pressure points early next year where they might be able to exert their will on Obama. He will need another debt ceiling increase by February and another continuing resolution in March to keep the federal government running. Republicans are almost certain to use those pieces of must-pass legislation to leverage deeper concessions from the president.
It's hard to imagine Congress going that long without a deal. Then again, it was only a few months ago that the cliff looked remote at best.
Both sides, in theory, want one. And there's still time to get one before Christmas, although the odds diminish as each day passes without visible progress.
"You need to be transitioning to a more serious interaction between the parties and the chambers at some point [this] week," said Eric Ueland, who was chief of staff for former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). "It is going to take time to understand how the parts fit together and interact, talk that through with interested members on both sides of the aisle and in the House and Senate and reduce that to writing."
Even if negotiations appear stuck a week from now, a big deal remains possible, given how quickly things can come together in Congress. Eventually, though, the logistics of muscling something complex through both chambers will become impossible -- probably about five days or so before Christmas.
But even more important than the legislative timetables are the political realities. A broad agreement hinges on both sides moving off hardened positions on policy and risking the political fallout.
After all, the outlines of a potential compromise aren't difficult to sketch out:
Agree to a middle ground on tax rates by raising the top bracket to 37 percent rather than the Clinton-era rate of 39.6 percent. Restrict tax breaks for wealthier individuals, possibly by limiting the rate for charitable deductions at 28 percent or capping all deductions at $35,000. Delay the across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester for a year. Raise the Medicare eligibility age and establish more means testing for the wealthy. Institute a less generous cost-of-living calculator for government programs such as Social Security. And set up a process for tax reform next year.
Such a deal seems logical enough, but it would require Republicans to abandon their ideological core on taxes -- and to feel as though they are getting enough in return on entitlements. And Democrats would need to agree to reduce cherished Medicare and Medicaid benefits, which they have increasingly sounded reluctant to do since the election. Obama, who wants a deal so he can get the economy moving and start fresh in his second term, would have to bring along the liberal wing of his party.
"There's a growing body of folks who are willing to look at the rate on the top 2 percent," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said on "Fox News Sunday.""The shift in focus in entitlements is where we need to go. ... Republicans know they have the debt ceiling that's coming up around the corner, and the leverage is going to shift as soon as we get beyond this issue -- the leverage is going to shift to our side."
More and more Republicans are sounding like Corker. The question is whether enough will step forward to give Boehner cover to negotiate a rate hike.
Maybe Congress will do exactly what Obama has asked -- and stick it to him at the same time.
Republicans could agree to pass an extension of the middle-class tax rates but do nothing else. That isn't really what the White House wants, despite what the president has been saying.
Sure, Democrats would be thrilled to lock in those rates, but doing only that would mean lots of other stuff doesn't get done -- an extension of unemployment benefits, an increase in the debt limit, a patch to protect upper middle-class families from paying the alternative minimum tax. Plus, top earners would see their tax rates rise in January.
Instead, Republicans would use the debt limit as leverage to deal with all the unfinished business. Obama has repeatedly said he won't negotiate around the debt limit for a second time. The White House is hoping pressure from the business community and average voters would prevent Republicans from pursuing that path, which proved unpopular in 2011. But Obama may not have a choice.
And from the Republican standpoint, a mere extension of the middle-class tax rates still looks like a long shot. Most of the Republicans who have said they could be open to rate hikes wouldn't do it without some kind of entitlement cuts. But they may not have a choice either.
The ultimate course that Congress and the White House take depends, in large part, on how Boehner chooses to proceed over the next few days.
"He can be the speaker of a block of Republicans working with Democrats or he can be the speaker of the hard right fighting Democrats," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press.""There's no middle ground."
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