The United States on Wednesday edged closer to the "fiscal cliff" as Congress waited for President Barack Obama to return from vacation in Hawaii and make one final attempt to avoid huge tax hikes and spending cuts in the New Year.
In the absence of Obama, there was no sign of either side in Congress making an effort to strike a deal. The corridors of the Capitol building were empty except for an occasional police officer, and members' office doors stayed locked.
House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner has not yet set a date for bringing House members back to Washington from their Christmas break, an aide of the Republican leader said. That makes the timing of a vote on any budget deal before Dec. 31 more difficult.
The Boehner aide also said there were no plans for new talks between the top Republican in Congress and Obama, who flies overnight and is due back in the White House on Thursday morning.
The inaction notwithstanding, there was still just enough time to prevent a fiscal crunch that would upset global financial markets and likely push the United States into recession.
Reports of lackluster retail holiday sales added to the urgency for a deal. Shoppers might be spending less this holiday season in fear of looming income tax increases. U.S. stocks fell on Wednesday, dragged lower by shares of retail companies.
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A modest, last-minute measure in Congress to avoid deep spending cuts set for Jan. 1 and most of the tax hikes could pass the Democratic-controlled Senate by the New Year, although Republicans would need to agree not use a procedural roadblock known as a filibuster.
But senators probably would not make the effort unless there was a strong signal from Boehner that the House would find a way to go along.
A Senate Democratic aide downplayed chances for votes this week in the Senate, but suggested there could be legislative movement over the weekend.
"We can't do anything until Republicans either give us the 60 votes," which are needed to advance legislation without long procedural delays, or allow a short-cut that lets bills pass on a simple majority vote in the 100-member chamber.
The focus in Congress is shifting from broad deficit reduction to narrower efforts to avert the immediate shock of the Dec. 31 cliff dive.
"This is the (emergency) scenario that we have long believed would rise in probability the closer we go to Dec. 31, which essentially calls for extending all the rates for those individuals making under $200K and households under $250K and does not address the debt ceiling or the deficit," analyst Chris Krueger of Guggenheim Securities wrote in a research note.
Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, who is retiring at year's end, told MSNBC that $250,000 "is too low of a threshold" for raising income taxes.
She said that in conversations she has had with some Senate Democrats, "they are saying maybe more in the $400,000 to $500,000 category."
Obama himself recently offered to raise the threshold to $400,000, before negotiations with Boehner broke off.