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Passage of Bill to Avoid 'Cliff' Should Bolster Wall Street

U.S. stocks are poised for gains to begin the year after the late passage of a bill to avoid harsh tax hikes that would have hit most Americans and crimped economic growth.

The bill that passed does not contain the kind of spending cuts that many conservative Republicans favor in order to bring down the high U.S. federal debt.

Even as this battle recedes, markets will look ahead to another fight in the next few months, this time over whether Congress will approve an increase in the U.S. debt ceiling.

The White House has said it will not negotiate the debt ceiling as in 2011, when the fight over what was once a procedural matter preceded the first-ever downgrade of the U.S. credit rating. But it may be forced into such a battle again. A repeat of that war is most worrisome for markets.

"The spending side fight looms and it will be tougher," said David Kotok, chairman and chief investment officer at Cumberland Advisors in Sarasota, Florida. "The Republican caucus is tighter on that side."

Markets posted several days of sharp losses in the period surrounding the fight in 2011. Even after a bill to increase the ceiling passed, stocks plunged in what was seen as a vote of "no confidence" in Washington's ability to function, considering how close lawmakers came to a default.

Economists at Goldman Sachs, in a note Tuesday, said the coming fight to raise the debt ceiling -- where Republicans are likely to demand spending cuts while President Obama pushes for more taxes -- "is likely to be at least as politically difficult as the last increase was in the summer of 2011."

During this fight, the markets have been less volatile, largely because the effects of the spending cuts and tax hikes will be gradual, and there was an ongoing expectation that a retroactive fix was in the offing.

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