AROUND dinnertime Sunday night, ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl reported on Twitter that he'd asked a source who is a Senate aide for an update on the last-minute talks to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff" of across-the-board tax hikes and deep spending cuts. What got emailed back was an iconic picture.
It showed Wile E. Coyote - the Roadrunner's not-so-wily cartoon nemesis - skidding off a steep cliff.
Indeed, the last day of 2012 may long be remembered as America's Wile E. Coyote moment - the day the nation's political system sprinted far out over the abyss of a dry desert canyon, pausing long enough to hold up a tiny sign reading "Help!" before taking a steep plunge into the unknown.
On Sunday night, with the deadline little more than 24 hours away, there was a lot of furious running in place but no vote and little progress. GOP lawmakers demanded that long-term spending restraints on Social Security be a part of any deal, then took it back under Democratic pressure. But there was no breakthrough on the biggest stumbling block, which was how - or whether - to increase income taxes on the wealthy.
The Senate was due back at 11 a.m. on Monday, but Congress dropping the ball seemed nearly as likely as the ball dropping in Times Square on midnight.
"I'm incredibly disappointed we cannot seem to find common ground," South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham, what passes for a GOP moderate these days, said on Twitter. "I think we're going over the cliff."
Failure to reach a deal will have broad - albeit possibly just temporary - financial impacts on practically every American and will cause life-altering hardships for some. Here are a few of the noteworthy impacts.
* Taxes will rise for nearly nine out of every 10 Americans, and the increase for an average family has been estimated at roughly $3,500, or $70 a week. That's because virtually every tax cut passed by Congress since 2001 - including the "Bush tax cuts" on income, as well as the 2-percentage-point reduction in payroll taxes after the Great Recession hit in 2009 - will vanish overnight.
* About 2.1 million jobless and struggling Americans - including 115,000 here in Pennsylvania - will immediately stop getting their unemployment checks as extended benefits, which were also passed to deal with the recession's aftereffects, run out.
* Budget cuts of 8 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).
* Even the price of milk is caught up in the gridlock. Because of the inability to pass fiscal legislation, Congress has also failed to act upon a farm bill that includes provisions to stabilize the price of milk; without them, you could spend $6 or even $8 a gallon, which doubles the current cost.
Is there a catch? Yes - the new Congress that takes office on Jan. 7 could vote at any time to undo the worst impacts of whatever doesn't happen this week. As a result, some pundits say that what's really happening with the New Year is not so much a "fiscal cliff" as a "fiscal curb" - with Congress still able to steer the nation back onto the road to prosperity with only a minor case of political whiplash. But even a couple of weeks of that uncertainty could cause stocks to plummet and lead to a freeze in hiring in the private sector.
The near collapse of the fiscal talks launched a series of recriminations and even self-loathing that was unusual by Washington standards. "Something has gone terribly wrong when the biggest threat to our American economy is the American Congress," said West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, a centrist Democrat.
So, why can't Washington get anything done? Basically, it's because both Democrats and Republicans are using the deadline as an opportunity to push policy agendas that have long been an unacceptable anathema to the other side.
In the case of President Obama and congressional Democrats, they are seeking to increase levies on the rich - families making more than $250,000, although there has been talk of a higher limit of $400,000 or $1 million - but there are some tea-party Republicans who have vowed never to vote for a tax increase of any kind.
Meanwhile, Democrats insist that nothing in either the short- or long-term financial outlook requires cuts in entitlement programs like the one sought on Sunday by congressional Republicans, which would reduce cost-of-living increases to Social Security payments over time by using a different kind of calculation.
"So far, at least, Congress has not been able to get this stuff done," Obama said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. "Not because Democrats in Congress don't want to go ahead and cooperate, but because I think it's been very hard for Speaker [John] Boehner and Republican Leader [Mitch] McConnell to accept the fact that taxes on the wealthiest Americans should go up a little bit, as part of an overall deficit-reduction package."
"I'm concerned with the lack of urgency here. There's far too much at stake," McConnell responded. "There is no single issue that remains an impossible sticking point - the sticking point appears to be willingness, an interest or courage to close the deal."
And so over the cliff we go, Wile E. Coyote-style. It's good to remember, though, that the cartoon character always dusts himself off, albeit with stars circling his head, and lives to do battle another day. Ditto for America.
- The Associated Press contributed to this report.