David Jackson, USA TODAY
Most difficult negotiations go down to the last minute -- but when it comes to the fiscal cliff, when is the last minute?
Christmas or New Year's Day?
Many White House and congressional officials would like to get a deal before Christmas -- ideally by Friday, Dec. 21, the start of this year's long Christmas weekend.
But for that to happen, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, would have to put up a proposal in next few days.
It takes time for House and Senate leaders to put together specific pieces of legislation and get them to floor to be voted on.
If they miss Christmas, negotiators then have to aim for Jan. 1 -- the start of the year of the "fiscal cliff," a series of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts that kick in if the parties are unable to reach a debt reduction deal.
If negotiators fail -- if they go over the cliff -- then they face yet another key date: Jan. 3, the day a new Congress is sworn in, and most of the process starts all over again.