Any hopes that a Christmas vacation would help break the logjam in negotiations over the so-called fiscal cliff were dashed Thursday, when leaders spent their first day back in Washington deflecting blame for the increasing likelihood that massive tax increases and spending cuts will take effect Jan. 1.
Just four days from their self-imposed deadline, neither the White House nor Congress gave any indication that they were any closer to a deal. No legislation was rolled out on Capitol Hill nor did the White House unveil any fresh plans.
"We're going over the cliff. It's just embarrassing, period -- for everyone involved," one senior House Republican aide told The Washington Examiner. "It's a damn shame."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told fellow Republicans to return to Washington on Sunday but insisted the Senate must devise a compromise that could be put to a vote in coming days. Hoping to strike a last-minute deal, President Obama will host a meeting at the White House on Friday with congressional leaders.
That seemed unlikely Thursday when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., declared that the country was heading over the fiscal cliff and launched an attack against Boehner for obstructing a deal to save his leadership post. He called Boehner's reign in the House a "dictatorship."
"John Boehner seems to care more about keeping his speakership than keeping the nation on a firm financial footing," Reid said. "It's obvious what's going on. He's waiting until Jan. 3 to get re-elected to speaker because he has so many people over there that won't follow what he wants."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., defended Boehner and Republicans. Boehner had signaled a willingness to accept a tax increase -- though only on millionaires -- but couldn't get his fellow Republicans to support it.
"Republicans bent over backwards. We stepped way out of our comfort zone," McConnell said. "We wanted an agreement. But we had no takers. The phone never rang."
The negotiations are so conflicted that officials on both sides couldn't agree Thursday on whether there had been an exchange of a new offer. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., tweeted that Obama had sent a new plan to the Senate, only to have his claim swiftly shot down by the White House.
Obama returned to the White House on Thursday, cutting short his Hawaiian vacation as Washington nears the cliff's edge. Last week, he floated a scaled-back proposal that would extend middle-class tax cuts and unemployment benefits, while putting off any decision on deep spending cuts. Republicans dismissed the offer.
Both sides agree that if a deal is reached, it will likely be something short of the "grand bargain" that Obama has called for and will extend the contentious debate into next year.
Obama, who won re-election last month, has shown little willingness to back down from his pledge to raise taxes on families making more than $250,000 a year. And House Republicans, coming off their own electoral successes, remain adamant that the Democratic approach to taxes would stifle job creation.
Without an agreement, the average family would see its taxes increase by $3,500 next year. However, Congress could come to a solution after Jan. 1 and make the changes retroactive.