Congress returns this week for what will be one of the most consequential and difficult lame-duck sessions it has ever faced.
Lawmakers left themselves only a few weeks to reach agreement on a plan that would reduce the federal budget deficit and head off trillions of dollars' worth of budget cuts and tax increases that government auditors said could hit virtually every working American and throw the nation's economy into a second recession.
But opening offers from both sides suggest that Congress and the White House remain miles apart on fundamental issues and raise doubts about whether Washington, paralyzed by partisanship, can finally come together to spare the nation a devastating economic blow.
"I've never seen a lame-duck Congress do big things," House Speaker John Boehner warned shortly after last Tuesday's election.
Congress and the White House, unable to agree on any of the crucial financial issues earlier this year, put off action until now in hopes that voters would alter the balance of power and give them an edge in the negotiations.
But the elections changed nothing. Republicans still control the House. Democrats run the Senate and White House. So the same players now must do something they have until now proved unable -- or unwilling -- to do: reach a compromise before the spending cuts and tax increases take effect Jan. 1.
"The American people voted for action, not politics as usual," President Obama said in his first White House appearance since winning a second term.
Boehner, R-Ohio, last week suggested Republicans are open to including new tax revenues as part of a deficit reduction plan, but made clear that the GOP would agree only to close loopholes in the existing tax code, not raise anyone's tax rate, as Democrats propose.
A day later, Obama announced that while he's "not wedded to every detail of my plan," any compromise must include higher taxes on the wealthy. That proposal was central to his re-election campaign, the president noted, and his victory proved that "the majority of Americans agree with my approach."
Among the issues facing Congress this week:
» How to avoid $1 trillion in automatic budget cuts, half of them from the Pentagon. Virtually every federal program would be hit, but the defense cuts in particular would devastate Virginia's economy. Lawmakers must find other ways to reduce spending or replace the cuts with new tax revenue.
» Whether to extend Bush-era income tax cuts and tax credits, which expire at year's end. Obama wants to extend the cuts only for those making less than $250,000 a year and use the savings to pay down the deficit. Republicans said that would penalize small-business owners and they want all cuts extended.
» Whether to raise the payroll tax by 2 points to 6.2 percent, adding about $1,000 to the average family's annual tax bill. Though reluctant to raise taxes on about 160 million working Americans, lawmakers said the increase is needed to shore up Social Security.
» Raising the nation's debt limit. The Treasury Department said the government won't be able to borrow the money needed to pay its bills after early 2013 if the limit isn't raised. Partisan disputes over the limit, which nearly caused the government to default on its obligations, led to the first-ever downgrade of the nation's credit rating last year.