For two years, the president has seen House Republican leaders as the key to legislative progress, and he has pursued direct talks with Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader. That avenue of negotiation proved fruitless, in large part because House Republicans were deeply divided about any compromise that Mr. Obama would accept. The failure led Mr. Boehner to tell his colleagues this week that he would not be engaging in any more one-on-one negotiations with the president.
But negotiations over the fiscal impasse pointed to a new and unlikely path as more fiscal deadlines approach. In this case, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader and a veteran legislative dealmaker, initiated negotiations with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., which instigated talks between them and the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada. That produced sweeping tax legislation that averted large tax increases for most Americans and across-the-board spending cuts.
Then both Senate leaders worked hard to deliver the votes of a vast majority of their reluctant members, isolating House Republican leaders, who found themselves with no way forward other than to put the bill before the House and let Democrats push it over the finish line.
“I think this is the fourth time that we’ve seen this play out, where Boehner finally relents and lets the House consider a measure, and Democrats provide the votes to pass it,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat. “When they reach the point where their hand is forced, where there’s no other place to turn, they’ll do the right thing.”
That realization may lead to a more formalized process to begin bipartisan negotiations in the Senate to put pressure on the House. The deal that passed on Tuesday lifted the threat of tax increases that could have crippled the economy, but in other ways it compounded near-term fiscal threats. The government reached its statutory borrowing limit on Monday, giving Congress at best two to three months to raise the debt ceiling or risk a debilitating default on federal debt.
Around the same time, a two-month delay in the institution of across-the-board military and domestic spending cuts will lapse. Then, by the end of March, the current stopgap spending law financing the federal government will end, raising the specter of another government shutdown.
If House Republicans believe they can use those deadlines to extract concessions from the president on spending cuts, the White House may go elsewhere for a deal, Democrats say.
An official knowledgeable about the last negotiations said on Wednesday that the president would use such a strategy only if he was convinced that House Republican leaders would not or could not compromise. But in meeting with Senate Democrats on Monday and House Democrats on Tuesday, Mr. Biden labored to convince lawmakers that the White House had a way forward that would avoid last-minute theatrics and would not entail a stream of compromises on party principles, according to lawmakers who were there.
“One of the main concerns is, where do we go from here?” said Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, adding that Democrats feared that compromises on tax increases for the rich in the deal approved on Tuesday would lead to cuts in Social Security and Medicare in the next round of talks. “He has a game plan for that.”
A senior Democrat said that game plan would start in the coming weeks, when Mr. Obama addresses his agenda in his State of the Union address and lays out his budget for the 2014 fiscal year, due in early February.
That opening bid should restart talks with Congress on an overarching agreement that would lock in deficit reduction through additional revenue, changes to entitlement programs and more spending cuts, to be worked out by the relevant committees in Congress. But this time, those talks might start in the Senate.
House Republican aides said the past few weeks were unique and not indicative of anything going forward. The president won re-election on a pledge to raise taxes on income over $250,000. His mandate does not extend beyond that, one aide said. Besides, officials in both parties warn, neither Mr. Reid nor Mr. McConnell will want to lead on the difficult issues now in view. Mr. Reid was reluctant, at best, about joining the Biden-McConnell talks.
And Mr. McConnell has made it clear that future deficit deals should be done through “regular order” — Congressional committees, Senate and House debates and open negotiations, not private talks. Officials in both parties worry that as his 2014 re-election campaign gets closer, Mr. McConnell will be increasingly reluctant to have his fingerprints on deals with the president.
Even if a Senate route can be institutionalized, Mr. Durbin said he doubted that it would smooth the passage of bipartisan deals, given the difficulties Mr. Boehner has getting his troops in line. “His anguish has a timetable. It goes through phases and places that I don’t understand,” Mr. Durbin said of the speaker. “And I am afraid every scary chapter has to play out every step of the way before anything is resolved.”
Michael Steel, a spokesman for Mr. Boehner, said the last-minute crunch that produced the tax accord was necessary only because the Senate refused to act earlier. The House passed legislation months ago to extend all the expiring Bush-era tax cuts and to stop automatic military cuts by shifting them to domestic programs.