For example, there could be a long lag, possibly lasting several months, between Jan. 2, when the budgets of government agencies would be cut, and the actual implementation of those cuts to programs ranging from research grants to court room security.
On the tax side, the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service have flexibility as to when to implement new, higher taxes. And even if higher withholding rates do take effect in January, they could be retroactively reversed later in the year.
In short, what has been dubbed a cliff is more like a fiscal slope that gets steeper as time goes on. How far the U.S. economy slides down it will depend on how quickly lawmakers in Washington take to do a deal.
A lot will depend on whether talks between administration officials and Congressional leaders can remain cordial and appear to be making progress, even if that progress is slow. They got off to what seemed to be a good start on Friday when both Democratic and Republican Congressional leaders came out of a meeting with PresidentBarack Obama talking about the need for a deal, giving a boost to U.S. stock prices.