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Since Election Day, Mr. Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, have claimed a mandate to raise taxes on families making at least $250,000 a year and individuals making $200,000 or more.

Speaking on the floor of the Senate last week, Mr. Reid said it is “within our power to forge an agreement that will take a balanced approach to reduce spending.”

“In fact, we could avert the fiscal cliff for 98 percent of American families and 97 percent of small businesses today. The House must only consider the Senate-passed bill freezing tax rates for those making less than $250,000 a year,” Mr. Reid said. “This Congress is but one vote away from avoiding the fiscal cliff for middle-class families and small businesses.”

House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, have insisted that they have a mandate from voters not to raise taxes.

“Instead of raising tax rates on the American people and accepting the damage it will do to our economy,” Mr. Boehner said in the weekly Republican address after the election, “let’s start to actually solve the problem” and make 2013 the “year to begin to solve our debt through tax reform and entitlement reform.”

Aside from the Bush tax cuts, lawmakers also must decide how much they want to add to the deficit when they consider the $10 billion Medicare “Doc Fix,” $84 billion in business tax extenders, about $95 billion for another extension of the payroll tax break and $103 billion for the patch to the alternative minimum tax.

The saga continued to unfold Friday when Republican and Democratic leaders emerged from the White House expressing confidence that the two sides will be able to make a deal before the end of the year.

Despite the optimism, it is clear that the fiscal cliff has put congressional leaders in a postelection pickle as they struggle to find the balance between tackling the deficit and not hurting an already fragile economic recovery.

Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said lawmakers are in a tight spot.

“The goal here is to put together as big a deficit package as you can that would stabilize the debt without derailing the economy recovery,” she said.

“There is a risk that if you do too much, too fast, you actually put us back into recession and that makes things harder. It is a delicate balancing act that is going to be difficult to get right,” she said.

“But the key is, are they going to be able to put together a package that is big enough and hits the right structural parts of the budget that the debt is not growing faster than the economy?”