President Barack Obama was cutting short his traditional Christmas holiday in Hawaii, planning to leave for Washington on Wednesday evening as a year-end deadline loomed before the U.S. economy goes over the so-called "fiscal cliff."
Obama was expected to arrive in Washington early Thursday, the White House said. First lady Michelle Obama and the couple's two daughters were scheduled to remain in Hawaii until Jan. 6.
In the past, the president's end-of-the-year holiday in his native state had stretched into the new year. The first family left Washington last Friday night.
Congress was expected to return to Washington on Thursday. Before he departed for Hawaii, Obama told reporters he expected to be back in the capital this week.
Without action by Obama and Congress, automatic deep budget cuts and tax increases are set to begin in January, which many economists say could send the country back into recession. So far, the president and congressional Republicans have been unable to reach agreement on any alternatives.
Lawmakers have expressed pessimism for the prospect of an agreement coming before Jan. 1. On Sunday, Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison said she expects any action in the waning days of the year to be "a patch, because in four days we can't solve everything."
With the collapse last week of Republican House Speaker John Boehner's plan to allow tax rates to rise on million-dollar-plus incomes, lawmakers were increasingly worried that no deal can be reached.
They were already preparing their arguments about who is to blame if the new year comes without an agreement.
Obama already has scaled back his ambitions for a sweeping budget bargain. Before leaving the capital on Friday, he called for a limited measure that extends the former President George W. Bush-era tax cuts for most people and staves off federal spending cuts.
The Obamas were spending the holiday at a rented home near Honolulu. On Christmas Day, the president and first lady visited with members of the military to express thanks for their service.
"One of my favorite things is always coming to base on Christmas Day just to meet you and say 'Thank you,'" the president said at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. He said that being commander in chief was his greatest honor as president.
On Christmas Eve, Obama called members of the military to thank them for serving the nation, then joined his family for dinner, the White House said. The Obamasopened gifts Christmas morning, ate breakfast and sang carols.