Given the failure of President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner to make a deal to avert the swath of looming spending cuts and across-the-board tax increases known as the "fiscal cliff," the deal hot potato has now landed in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's hands.
The Kentucky Republican, who faces re-election in 2014, has stayed on the sidelines so far as Boehner acted as the lead negotiator for the GOP. But since Boehner's failed attempt last week at passing a "Plan B" measure that would have prevented tax increase on people earning less than $1 million, the pressure has mounted on McConnell.
Adding to the mounting need for a deal is a letter distributed to Congressional leadership by Treasury Sec. Tim Geitner on Wednesday that stated the United States would hit its legally permissible debt limit on Dec. 31.
Treasury will begin to take "extraordinary measures" to put-off reaching the debt ceiling and is expected to create $200 billion in "headroom," normally good enough to stretch spending out for two more months, Geitner wrote.
"However, given the significant uncertainty that now exists with regard to unresolved tax and spending policies for 2013, it is not possible to predict the effective duration of these measures," he said. "At this time, the extent to which the upcoming tax filing season will be delayed as a result of these unresolved policy questions is also uncertain."
Geitner also added that if the country pitched over the fiscal cliff, that would actually buy more time because of the immediate effect of the deep spending cuts.
House Republican leadership made it clear they have either no appetite or political will to move forward with further negotiations in a statement released after a conference call on Wednesday.
"The House will take this action on whatever the Senate can pass, but the Senate first must act," said the release from Boehner's office. "The lines of communication remain open, and we will continue to work with our colleagues to avert the largest tax hike in American history and to address the underlying problem, which is spending."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's office promptly fired off a counter-statement urging the House to take up a measure it has already passed that would prevent tax increases on people earning $250,000 or less.
"It is time for House Republicans to put middle class families first by passing the Senate's bill to protect 98 percent of Americans from a tax hike on January 1," said Adam Jentleson, a Reid spokesman.
"Right now, the Senate bill is the only bill that can become law and House Republicans owe it to middle class families to let it pass with Democratic and Republican votes."
Boehner has declined to bring the Senate proposal for a vote, though it is widely expected to pass with the support of all Democrats and some Republicans, because he is operating under the custom that unless most of the majority supports something it shouldn't be voted on. Speculation is also swirling that he fears doing so would threaten his ability to retain his speakership when House members vote on their leadership Jan. 3.
House GOP leadership hope that if McConnell can finagle a workable compromise with Reid, the combination of Senate GOP seal of approval and deadline pressure would result in its passage. Any Senate compromise would likely not be a 'grand bargain' but rather a temporary fix aimed at avoiding the economic tumult expected from going over the cliff, scheduled to happen in five days.
Obama, cutting short his Hawaii family vacation, returned to Washington Wednesday evening and the Senate is also in town to complete other business. The House, however, has not been called back into session.
Expectations for the economic consequences of not achieving a deal are varied; some economists prefer to call the cliff a 'slope' because they view the effects to be gradual, but others say it will plunge the country into recession again.
But according to polling, the political consequences are more dire for Republicans than Democrats if a deal isn't struck. The latest Gallup survey shows 68 percent of Americans support a compromise deal versus 22 percent who think it's important for negotiators to "stick to their principles." The same poll shows about a quarter of people approve of Boehner's leadership on the issue, compared with more than half who approve of the president's leadership.