The “fiscal cliff” nears, and judging from the rhetoric coming from congressional Republicans and the White House of late, a deal is not near. (House Speaker John Boehner declared “stalemate” late last week.)

Of course, like a procrastinating college student writing an end-of-semester term paper, Congress tends to do its best work with a deadline looming, so veteran Capitol Hill watchers insist that the possibility of a deal remains intact — despite the appearance to the contrary.

So, if a deal is going to come, how will we know? Aside from President Obama and Boehner (R-Ohio), there are a handful of lesser-known but critical players in this drama — each of whom may signal whether a deal is coming and what it might look like.

Here, alphabetically, are five names to watch:

●Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee almost certainly has to sign off on any sort of deal the White House wants cut on taxes. Baucus has largely avoided the spotlight so far on the talks — “If we go over the cliff, then we’re entering very uncharted waters,” he told CNN late last week — but strategists on both sides of the aisle expect Baucus to involve himself more as the deadline draws closer. Baucus’s in-state politics could matter as to where he ends up on the fiscal cliff; he is up for reelection in 2014 in a state that Obama lost by 14 points last month. (Looking for Baucus’s Republican counterpart? Try Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, who chairs the influential House Ways and Means Committee.)

●Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.). The House majority leader has kept relatively quiet on the cliff to date, but what he decides to do matters. Cantor emerged as the voice for the newly elected tea party crowd in the House after the 2010 election and, as such, became the chief antagonist to Obama during the debate on the debt ceiling, among other times. Does he reprise that role, or does he line up behind Boehner’s effort to get some sort of deal done? Much depends on what Cantor believes the future holds for him. A challenge to Boehner? Biding his time for a few more elections? A run for higher office in 2014 or 2016?

●Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). Coburn is the conservative linchpin for any sort of deal on the cliff. He has been publicly open to the idea of generating more revenue from the wealthiest Americans, but he insisted in a recent interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that “there’s no question we can have the rich pay more, but that won’t solve our problem.” Coburn is regarded as a serious legislator and committed conservative by both Democrats and Republicans. So, if Coburn is for some sort of deal, he will probably be providing conservatives in Congress some measure of cover to support it also. And unlike most senators — and House members — who are worried about how their actions will affect their reelection, Coburn has repeatedly insisted he will honor his term-limit pledge and retire from Congress in 2016.

●Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Ryan is not only the recent GOP vice-presidential nominee, he’s also the chairman of the House Budget Committee. Ryan’s entire political brand is built on the idea of speaking truth to power on debt and spending issues. His budget proposals over the past few years have become urtexts for conservatives and played a major role in his selection as Mitt Romney’s running mate. With such a high national profile, what Ryan does in the next month matters. He has a real constituency among House Republicans and could either deliver votes for a deal or ensure votes against one. The backdrop to all of this is Ryan’s own near-certain 2016 presidential campaign, and what he does in the next month will begin positioning him for that race.

●Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). Ryan’s Democratic counterpart on the House Budget Committee, Van Hollen has emerged as one of the party’s leading voices on fiscal matters — and he is someone the White House likes and admires. Remember that Van Hollen was one of the first voices — if not the first — to insist that simply closing loopholes in the tax code that benefit the wealthiest wouldn’t be enough to seriously address the debt, and to push Democrats to hold fast on the need to raise the tax rates on the rich. If a deal on the fiscal cliff is going to happen, it will probably fall to Van Hollen to sell the finer points of it to rank-and-file House Democrats.