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Talk of Grand Bargain Heads to Dustbin

President Barack Obama is cutting his Hawaii vacation short to return to Washington on Wednesday night, but with most parties disengaged from negotiations over the weekend, the prospect of going over the fiscal cliff is more real than ever.

Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio will reconvene the House on Thursday in a pro forma session, and GOP aides say he has not been in contact with the White House since last Friday, when the House gaveled in a pro forma session. House GOP leaders promised their members they would have 48 hours notice before calling the full House back to Washington.

While the road ahead remains uncertain, the options have no doubt narrowed. Talk of a comprehensive deal, or grand bargain, has all but ceased, with all parties setting their sights on smaller temporary patches to avoid impending tax increases and spending cuts.

On Friday, Obama called on Congress to take up a narrow measure that would extend tax cuts only for those making less than $250,000 annually, extend unemployment insurance benefits and temporarily put off the $500 billion in sequestration cuts.

Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada could bring such a measure to the Senate floor for a vote this week, but it remains unclear whether Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., or any other Senate Republican would look to block the package.

Still, some in the Senate GOP have signaled a willingness to go along with Obama’s proposal if time runs out. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said on Sunday that he would vote for it if it became the only option.

“If we get down to the end of this year and the only choice we have is to save taxes going up on the middle class, then I would support that,” he said on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.”

If the Senate can pass a bill that Democrats favor, it will be up to Boehner to decide whether to put it on the House floor, and he may be reluctant to because it could pass with a majority of Democratic votes but fall short of a majority of Republicans.

“If Speaker Boehner is willing to bring to the floor of the House a bill, and just let this House work its will, Democrats and Republicans voting as their conscience determines, then I believe we can get something done,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., told Bloomberg TV.

House Republicans have often said that Boehner favors the “majority of the majority” rule, which means he would not bring any bill to the floor unless most of his conference would vote for it.

But potentially forcing Boehner’s hand is the fact that his leverage is damaged after he tried to pass a “Plan B” last week that would have allowed taxes to rise only on millionaires. He was unable to find the votes in his own conference and pulled the bill from the floor at the last minute.

Boehner is especially wary of allowing the country to go off the fiscal cliff. Recent polls have shown, and Republicans have largely acknowledged, that the public would blame Republicans for the failure to come to a deal.

Still, with time running short, it is doubtful that the chambers even have enough time to pass fiscal cliff legislation before the end of the year, even if they work through New Year’s Eve.

If Congress does indeed allow the deadline to pass, it could come back in the New Year and, with new members in the House and Senate, pass a retroactive fix for most of the expiring tax and spending measures.

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