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Political Brinksmanship Still Threatens US Economy

The economy doesn't have much growth to give. Mark Vitner, senior economist at Wells Fargo, predicts it will expand just 1.5 percent in 2013, down from a lackluster 2.2 percent in 2012. Unemployment stands at 7.7 percent.

A months-long political standoff over fiscal policy has already taken its toll, adding uncertainty that has discouraged consumers from spending and businesses from hiring and investing.

The squabbling seems sure to persist.

Lawmakers postponed tough decisions on government spending, giving themselves a reprieve from cuts that were scheduled to begin taking effect automatically Jan. 1. That just sets the stage for more hard-bargaining later. Spending cuts, when they come, could crimp growth even more.

And another standoff is likely to arrive as early as February when Congress will need to raise the $16.4 trillion federal borrowing limit so the government can keep paying its bills. House Republicans probably won't agree to raise the debt limit without offsetting spending cuts that Democrats are sure to resist.

Obama warned Republicans late Tuesday that "if Congress refuses to give the United States government the ability to pay these bills on time, the consequences for the entire global economy would be catastrophic, far worse than the impact of a fiscal cliff."

Ethan Harris, co-head of global economics at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, asked: "What induces the two sides to stop fighting and start compromising?"

The fiscal cliff itself was created to force Democrats and Republicans to compromise, and it succeeded â¿¿ barely.

To end a 2011 standoff over raising the federal debt limit, they agreed to a Jan. 1, 2013 deadline to reach a deal over taxes and spending. If they didn't, more than $500 billion in tax increases would hit the economy in 2013 alone, along with $109 billion in cuts from the military and domestic spending programs. The sharp tax hikes and spending cut would threaten to send the economy over the cliff and back into recession.

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