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What happens if the country goes over the fiscal cliff?

– Efforts to save the nation from going over a year-end fiscal cliff were still in disarray as lawmakers returned to the Capitol to confront the tax-and-spend crisis. A tone-setting quotation was Democratic Sen. Harry Reid’s assertion that the House under Republican Speaker John Boehner had been “operating with a dictatorship.”

President Obama flew back to Washington from Hawaii after telephoning congressional leaders from his Christmas vacation perch. Once back, he set up a meeting with leaders of both parties at the White House late Friday to make a fresh attempt to find a solution before Monday night’s deadline.

A look at why it’s so hard for Republicans and Democrats to compromise on urgent matters of taxes and spending, and what happens if they fail to meet their deadline:

New Year’s headache

Partly by fate, partly by design, some scary fiscal forces come together at the start of 2013 unless Congress and Obama act to stop them. They include:

•Some $536 billion in tax increases, touching nearly all Americans, because various federal tax cuts and breaks expire at year’s end.

•About $110 billion in spending cuts divided equally between the military and most other federal departments. That’s about 8 percent of their annual budgets, 9 percent for the Pentagon.

Hitting the national economy with that double whammy of tax increases and spending cuts is what’s called going over the “fiscal cliff.” If allowed to unfold over 2013, it would lead to recession, a big jump in unemployment and financial market turmoil, economists predict.

What if they miss the deadline?

If New Year’s Day arrives without a deal, the nation shouldn’t plunge onto the shoals of recession immediately. There still might be time to engineer a soft landing.

So long as lawmakers and the president appear to be working toward agreement, the tax hikes and spending cuts could mostly be held at bay for a few weeks. Then they could be repealed retroactively once a deal was reached.

The big wild card is the stock market and the nation’s financial confidence: Would traders start to panic if Washington appeared unable to reach accord? Would worried consumers and businesses sharply reduce their spending?

In what could be a preview, stock prices in the U.S. and Europe dropped Friday on waning hopes that Obama and key lawmakers would reach an eleventh-hour compromise.

What if they never agree?

If negotiations between Obama and Congress collapse completely, 2013 looks like a rocky year.

Taxes would jump $2,400 on average for families with incomes of $50,000 to $75,000, according to a study by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. Because consumers would get less of their paychecks to spend, businesses and jobs would suffer. At the same time, Americans would feel cuts in government services; some federal workers would be furloughed or laid off and companies would lose government business. The nation would lose up to 3.4 million jobs, the Congressional Budget Office predicts.

The taxes

Much of the disagreement surrounds the George W. Bush-era income tax cuts, and whether those rates should be allowed to rise for the nation’s wealthiest taxpayers. Both political parties say they want to protect the middle class from tax increases.

Several tax breaks begun in 2009 to stimulate the economy by aiding low- and middle-income families are also set to expire Jan. 1. The alternative minimum tax would expand to catch 28 million more taxpayers, with an average increase of $3,700 a year. Taxes on investments would rise, too. More deaths would be covered by the federal estate tax, and the rate climbs from 35 percent to 55 percent. Some corporate tax breaks would end.

The temporary Social Security payroll tax cut also is due to expire. That tax break for most Americans seems likely to end even if a fiscal cliff deal is reached, now that Obama has backed down from his call to prolong it as an economic stimulus.

The spending

If the nation goes over the fiscal cliff, budget cuts of 8 percent or 9 percent would hit most of the federal government, touching all sorts of things from agriculture to law enforcement and the military to weather forecasting. A few areas, such as Social Security benefits, Veterans Affairs and some programs for the poor, are exempt.

There’s more

All sorts of stuff could get wrapped up in the fiscal cliff deal-making. A sampling:

•Some 2 million jobless Americans may lose their federal unemployment aid. Obama wants to continue the benefits extension as part of the deal; Republicans say it’s too costly.

•Social Security recipients might see their checks grow more slowly. As part of a possible deal, Obama and Republican leaders want to change the way cost-of-living adjustments are calculated, which would mean smaller checks over the years for retirees who get Social Security, veterans’ benefits or government pensions.

•The price of milk could double. If Congress doesn’t provide a fix for expiring dairy price supports before Jan. 1, milk-drinking families could feel the pinch. One scenario is to attach a farm bill extension to the fiscal cliff legislation – if a compromise is reached in time.

The countdown

Time for deal-making is short, thanks to the holiday and congressional calendars.

•Lawmakers didn’t begin returning to the Capitol until Thursday, leaving less than a week to vote on a compromise before year’s end.

•Obama returned Thursday from his Christmas vacation in Hawaii. The president asked congressional leaders to the White House on Friday to try to resolve the fiscal cliff.

•The current Congress is in session only through noon Thursday. After that, a newly elected Congress with 13 new senators and 82 new House members would inherit the problem.

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