With room for maneuver slipping away, top US Republican John Boehner is in a bind over how to avoid going over the fiscal cliff: embrace higher taxes and earn conservatives' ire, or scupper a deal and incur Americans' wrath.
Another option, one that few non-partisans see as very viable, is for President Barack Obama to cave in and agree to Republican demands not to raise taxes, even for the wealthiest Americans.
A likelier resolution is a compromise with the White House that avoids the early January shock of automatic spending cuts coupled with tax hikes on nearly all Americans, while laying out enough deficit reduction that eases concern about the country's financial well-being.
In the game of political chicken to see whether Democrats or Republicans blink first, perhaps the trickiest role of all rests with Speaker of the House Boehner, who along with Obama is the principal in the negotiations.
Boehner's guidance of the Republican position in coming days and weeks could signal much about party direction in the wake of an election that saw flagbearer Mitt Romney -- who advocated slashing tax rates across the board -- defeated by Obama.
"To say Boehner is between a rock and a hard place is minimizing the problem he faces," Boston University professor and longtime political consultant Tobe Berkovitz told AFP.
"Boehner is trying to keep public opinion about Republicans from totally cratering, and at the same time keep the Tea Party hardcore conservatives from totally abandoning the party."
Conservative Republican Trent Franks agrees that "our speaker is in an enormously difficult position."
"And I think he's doing the best he can," the congressman told National Public Radio. "That doesn't mean that what he finally arrives at will be something that I can support or it won't. You know, I don't know."
Few people other than Boehner and Obama know the true state of negotiations in what appears as a well-choreographed campaign to thrash out a last-minute deal.
Discussions appear to have stalled, though, and Boehner has accused Obama of having "wasted another week" by not pushing talks forward.
This weekend Boehner "will be waiting for the White House to respond to our serious offer about averting the fiscal cliff," his spokesman Michael Steel told AFP.
Obama has proposed $1.6 trillion in new taxes over the next decade from higher rates on the wealthiest two percent of Americans.
Republicans countered with a plan for $800 billion in tax revenue raised by closing loopholes and ending some deductions. Both plans were rejected.
A Democratic official said Saturday that "nothing has changed since yesterday."
Polls show most Americans want to see taxes rise on the wealthy.
With Obama winning re-election on November 6, and his Democrats gaining seats in both the House and Senate, Republicans concede privately -- and some publicly -- that the Democrats have the upper hand.
"President Obama pretty well holds all the cards in this negotiation," Republican Senator Ron Johnson told Fox News.
"If he wants to have tax increases or tax rates go up, I don't see how Republicans can stop him."
Public trust is not in Boehner's favor. A Washington Post/Pew poll this week showed 53 percent of Americans would blame Republicans should the economy dive off the cliff; 27 percent would blame Democrats.
In his weekly address Saturday, Obama said he was willing to find ways to reduce health costs and make more entitlement spending cuts, but as for asking "the wealthiest Americans to pay higher tax rates -- that's one principle I won't compromise on."
Potential future Republican leaders like Senator Marco Rubio are unlikely to want to bend to White House will.
Rubio, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, gave the Republican response to Obama's address -- and said "tax increases will not solve our $16 trillion debt."
Boehner has said that, too, but his position is tenuous. On Friday he left open the possibility for compromise on a tax rate rise.
In past negotiations, such as last December's battle over extending the payroll tax holiday, some Republicans felt Boehner gave away too much.
Hashtags on Twitter -- #boehnermustgo, #fireboehner -- have recently left little doubt that some Republicans are fed up with his handling of the talks.
With conservatives demanding unity on taxes, Boehner faces the prospect of revolt from his right flank should he agree to a deal that would raise high-end rates.
Berkovitz said Republicans face two options if they want to avoid the cliff: negotiate and compromise, or hold their noses and "give Obama what he wants. If it goes south, take the election victory in two years and maybe four years."