Watching the events of the past few weeks, you could have gotten the idea that the United States is not only going to slip from the "fiscal cliff" but jump lemming-like off it.
President Barack Obama presented last week a proposal that upset Republicans with its $1.6 trillion in revenue increases and limited spending cuts and then goaded them while on the road at a toy factory with jokes meant to paint the Republicans as Scrooges.
His main Republican sparring partner, Speaker of the U.S House of Representatives John Boehner, then declared in a series of public appearances that the two sides are "nowhere." And yet, seasoned Washington hands say that once this rather gloomy back and forth has played out - and it might take another week or more - the work towards reaching a solution that both sides can sell to their parties and their lawmakers will begin in earnest.
A deal by Christmas, a week before the fiscal cliff deadline, remains uncertain but not out of the question. The so-called fiscal cliff is a combination of U.S. government spending cuts and tax increases due to be implemented under existing law in early 2013 that may cut the federal budget deficit but also tip the economy back into recession.
The pattern of little happening until very close to a holiday is well-established on Capitol Hill. The past three pre-Christmas seasons brought important eleventh-hour developments on health care in 2009, tax cut extensions in 2010 and the payroll tax holiday in 2011.
It's so ingrained that many Capitol Hill veterans routinely, and sometimes mistakenly, dismiss as theater pronouncements of progress or stalemate that occur more than a few weeks before the holiday.
"The Congress doesn't work on the clock; it works on the calendar," said Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, who in 15 years of serving in Congress, including leadership jobs, has been through plenty of tough scrapes.
"There is just that required moment when something has to happen because you've run out of time," said Blunt. In the meantime, "there is a desire to maximize your negotiating position until you realize you don't have any room any more to negotiate. It almost invariably works that way."
With each day that goes by, as the Washington cliche goes, the "smell of the jet fumes" - meaning the airplanes that will carry members of Congress back to their home