House Republicans were preparing to push through a "plan B" bill on the fiscal cliff crisis on Thursday, in a largely symbolic gesture that only served to highlight the extent of the deadlock in Washington.
After days of hopeful talks between Barack Obama and Republican House speaker John Boehner earlier this week, negotiations appear to have reached an impasse. Hopes of a deal before Christmas have almost evaporated.
The White House press spokesman Jay Carney said communications between Obama and Boehner had ceased. The two have not spoken since Monday.
"Time's running short. I'm going to do everything I can to protect as many Americans from an increase in taxes as I can," Boehner said as he vowed to push ahead with a planned vote on his bill on Thursday night.
Carney dismissed the bill, which the Democratic-led Senate said it will not consider and which the White House vowed to veto, as a "multi-day exercise in futility".
Only hours before the vote, Boehner was facing a revolt among some conservatives who were refusing to back a tax-raising bill. About a dozen said emphatically they will not vote for it, while others refused to say or said they still had to make up their minds.
Obama, who had been due to fly to Honolulu this weekend to begin a Christmas and New Year break with his family, is postponing his trip. The Senate announced it is planning to leave Washington on Friday and return to Washington next Thursday, much earlier than planned, in hopes of still reaching a deal before the 1 January deadline.
The Republicans, who hold a solid majority in the House, were preparing to vote on a bill Thursday night that would restrict tax increases due to kick in on 1 January to those earning $1m a year or more.
The bill is designed primarily to offer the Republicans some cover if every taxpayer sees a rise on that day. While polls suggest the Republicans are likely to be blamed, they will be able to point to the bill, saying that if it had been enacted, it would have prevented rises for more than 99% of the population.
If Obama and Boehner were to suddenly reach an agreement, both the House and Senate would still be in session on Friday and both could return next Thursday in order to get legislation through before 1 January.
Boehner, at a press conference on Capitol Hill, said: "Under current law, tax rates will go up on all taxpayers beginning 1 January unless the Congress acts and the president will sign the bill. Today, we'll vote to protect as many American families and small businesses as possible from the tax hikes that are already scheduled to occur.
"The president has called on the House – again and again – to pass a bill to protect 98% of the American people from a tax hike. Well, today we're going to do better than that. Our bill would protect 99.81% of the American people from an increase in taxes."
But the Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, at an earlier press conference, said the bill was an empty gesture. "We are not taking up any of the things that they're working on over there now. It's very, very, very unfortunate the Republicans have wasted an entire week on a number of pointless political stunts."
He added: "The bill has no future, if they don't know it now, tell them what I said," he added.
The impasse comes at a time when the differences between Obama and Boehner appear to be minimal, with agreement reached on principle and divided only over the final figures.
Obama wants the tax increases to kick in at $250,000 rather than $1 million. He is proposing $800bn in spending cuts whereas Boehner is looking for $1.2tn.
Claiming it was not about the figures, Democrats identified the problem as Boehner being unable to deliver Republicans behind a tax-raising measure, a charge he denied. The Republicans countered that the problem was Obama being unable to sell spending cuts, particularly in entitlement programmes, to his own party.
Boehner said: "I've become convinced," he added, "the president is unwilling to stand up to his own party on the big issues that face our country."
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