|The U.S. Capitol building is pictured behind a fence as lawmakers return from the Christmas recess in Washington December 27, 2012. Photo by Mary F. Calvert, Reuters
WASHINGTON - A deal worked out by U.S. Senate leaders to avoid the "fiscal cliff," was far from any "grand bargain" of deficit reduction measures.
But if approved by the U.S. House of Representatives, it could help the country steer clear of recession, although enough austerity would remain in place to likely keep the economy growing at a lackluster pace.
The Senate approved a last-minute deal early Tuesday morning to scale back $600 billion in scheduled tax hikes and government spending cuts that economists widely agree would tip the economy into recession.
The deal would hike taxes permanently for household incomes over $450,000 a year, but keep existing lower rates in force for everyone else.
It would make permanent the alternative minimum tax "patch" that was set to expire, protecting middle-income Americans from being taxed as if they were rich.
Scheduled cuts in defense and non-defense spending were simply postponed for two months.
Economists said that if the emerging package were to become law, it would represent at least a temporary reprieve for the economy. "This keeps us out of recession for now," said Menzie Chinn, an economist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The contours of the deal suggest that roughly one-third of the scheduled fiscal tightening could still take place, said Brett Ryan, an economist at Deutsche Bank in New York.
That is in line with what many financial firms on Wall Street and around the world have been expecting, suggesting forecasts for economic growth of around 1.9 percent for 2013 would likely hold.
At midnight Monday, low tax rates enacted under then-President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2003 expired. If the House agrees with the Senate - and there remained considerable doubt on that score - the new rates would be extended retroactively.
Otherwise, together with other planned tax hikes, the average household would pay an estimated $3,500 more in taxes, according to the Tax Policy Center, a Washington think tank. Budget experts expect the economy would take a hit as families cut back on spending.
Provisions in the Senate bill would avoid scheduled cuts to jobless benefits and to payments to doctors under a federal health insurance program.
Like the consensus of economists from Wall Street and beyond, Deutsche Bank has been forecasting enough fiscal drag to hold back growth to roughly 1.9 percent in 2013. Ryan said the details of the deal appeared to support that forecast.
That would be much better than the 0.5 percent contraction predicted by the Congressional Budget Office if the entirety of the fiscal cliff took hold, but it would fall short of what is needed to quickly heal the labor market, which is still smarting from the 2007-09 recession.
"We continue to anticipate a significant economic slowdown at the start of the year in response to fiscal drag and a contentious fiscal debate," economists at Nomura said in a research note.
In particular, analysts say financial markets are likely to remain on tenterhooks until Congress raises the nation's $16.4 trillion debt ceiling, which the U.S. Treasury confirmed had been reached on Monday.
While the Bush tax cuts would be made permanent for many Americans under the budget deal, a two-year-long payroll tax holiday enacted to give the economy an extra boost would expire. The Tax Policy Center estimates this could push the average household tax bill up by about $700 next year.
The suspension of spending cuts sets up a smaller fiscal cliff later in the year which still could be enough to send the economy into recession, said Chinn.
He warned that ongoing worries about the possibility of recession could keep businesses from investing, which would hinder economic growth.
"You retain the uncertainty," Chinn said.