Even if Boehner and Obama were to reach an agreement, they would need time to sell rank-and-file lawmakers on the compromises it would likely include. They also would need several days to draw up legislation and pass it in the House and the Senate.

Stan Collender, a budget expert with Qorvis Communications, sees a one-in-four chance of that happening at this point.

"It's far more likely we'll go over the cliff and then fix it retroactively in January," he wrote.

If Washington does not act, tax rates are due to rise for all Americans at the beginning of next year and the federal government will have to cut spending on military and domestic programs across the board.

The resulting $600 billion hit could push the economy back into recession, but the full effect likely would not be felt for months - giving lawmakers some time after the New Year to resolve the situation.

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