If an agreement on the "fiscal cliff" is not crafted by January 1, across-the-board tax increases and deep spending cuts will automatically be triggered.
Obama returned early from a Hawaiian vacation while lawmakers snarled across a partisan divide over responsibility for gridlock on key pocketbook issues. Speaker John Boehner called the House back into session for a highly unusual Sunday evening session.
Four days before the deadline, the White House disputed reports that Obama was sending lawmakers a scaled-down plan to avoid the fiscal cliff of tax increases and spending cuts.
Administration officials confirmed the Friday meeting at the White House in a bare-bones announcement that said the president would "host a meeting."
An aide to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said the Kentucky lawmaker "is eager to hear from the president."
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner issued a statement that said the Ohio Republican would attend and "continue to stress that the House has already passed legislation to avert the entire fiscal cliff and now the Senate must act."
While there was no guarantee of a compromise, Republicans and Democrats said privately elements of any agreement would likely include an extension of middle class tax cuts with increased rates at upper incomes as well as cancellation of the scheduled spending cuts. An extension of expiring unemployment benefits, a reprieve for doctors who face a cut in Medicare payments and possibly a short-term measure to prevent dairy prices from soaring could also become part of a year-end bill, they said.
That would postpone politically contentious disputes over spending cuts for 2013.
Top Senate leaders said they remain ready to seek a last-minute agreement. Yet there was no legislation pending and no sign of negotiations in either the House or the Senate on a bill to prevent the tax hikes and spending cuts that economists say could send the economy into a recession.
Far from conciliatory, the rhetoric was confrontational and at times unusually personal.
Without congressional action, current tax rates will expire on Dec. 31, resulting in a $536 billion tax increase over a decade that would touch nearly all Americans. In addition, the military and other federal departments would have to begin absorbing about $110 billion in spending cuts.
Failure to avoid the "fiscal cliff" doesn't necessarily mean tax increases and spending cuts would become permanent, since the new Congress could pass legislation cancelling them retroactively after it begins its work next year.
But gridlock through the end of the year would mark a sour beginning to a two-year extension of divided government that resulted from last month's elections in which Obama won a new term and Republicans retained their majority in the House.
The tax issue in particular has been Obama's first test of muscle after his re-election in November. He ran for a new term calling for higher taxes on the wealthy, and postelection public opinion polls show continued support for his position.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.