WASHINGTON — Housing is rebounding. Families are shrinking debts. Europe has avoided a financial crackup. And the fiscal cliff deal has removed the most urgent threat to the U.S. economy.

So why don't economists foresee stronger growth and hiring in 2013?

Part of the answer is what Congress' agreement did (raise Social Security taxes for most of us). And part is what it didn't do (prevent the likelihood of more growth-killing political standoffs).

By delaying painful decisions on spending cuts, the deal assures more confrontation and uncertainty, especially because Congress must reach agreement later this winter to raise the government's debt limit. Many businesses are likely to remain wary of expanding or hiring in the meantime.

One hopeful consensus: If all the budgetary uncertainty can be resolved within the next few months, economists expect growth to pick up in the second half of 2013.

"We are in a better place than we were a couple of days ago," Chad Moutray, chief economist for the National Association of Manufacturers, said a day after Congress sent President Barack Obama legislation to avoid sharp income tax increases and government spending cuts. But "we really haven't dealt with the debt ceiling or tax reform or entitlement spending."

Five full years after the Great Recession began, the U.S. economy is still struggling to accelerate. Many economists think it will grow a meager 2 percent or less this year, down from 2.2 percent in 2012. The unemployment rate remains a high 7.7 percent. Few expect it to drop much this year.

Yet in some ways, the economy has been building strength. Corporations have cut costs and have amassed a near-record $1.7 trillion in cash. Home sales and prices have been rising consistently, along with construction. Hiring gains have been modest but steady. Auto sales in 2012 were the best in five years. The just-ended holiday shopping season was decent.

Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist for the Economic Outlook Group, thinks the lack of finality in the budget fight is slowing an otherwise fundamentally sound economy.

"What a shame," Baumohl said in a research note Wednesday. "Companies are eager to ramp up capital investments and boost hiring. Households are prepared to unleash five years of pent-up demand."

The economy might be growing at a 3 percent annual rate if not for the threat of sudden and severe spending cuts and tax increases, along with the haziness surrounding the budget standoff, says Ethan Harris, co-director of global economics at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Still, Congress' deal delivered a walloping tax hike for most workers: the end of a two-year Social Security tax cut. The tax is rising back up to 6.2 percent from 4.2 percent. The increase will cost someone making $50,000 about $1,000 a year and a household with two high-paid workers up to $4,500.

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, calculates that the higher Social Security tax will slow growth by 0.6 percentage point in 2013. The other tax increases – including higher taxes on household incomes above $450,000 a year – will slice just 0.15 percentage point from growth, Zandi says.

Congress' deal also postpones decisions on spending cuts for military and domestic programs, including Medicare and Social Security. In doing so, it sets up a much bigger showdown over raising the government's borrowing limit. Republicans will likely demand deep spending cuts as the price of raising the debt limit. A similar standoff in 2011 brought the government to the brink of default and led Standard & Poor's to yank its top AAA rating on long-term U.S. debt.

Here's how key parts of the economy are shaping up for 2013:

_ JOBS

With further fights looming over taxes and spending, many companies aren't likely to step up hiring. Congress and the White House will likely start battling over raising the $16.4 trillion debt limit in February.

Many economists expect employers to add an average of 150,000 to 175,000 jobs a month in 2013, about the same pace as in 2011 and 2012. That level is too weak to quickly reduce unemployment.

The roughly 2 million jobs Zandi estimates employers will add this year would be slightly more than the 1.8 million likely added in 2012. Zandi thinks employers would add an additional 600,000 jobs this year if not for the measures agreed to in the fiscal cliff deal.

Federal Reserve policymakers have forecast that the unemployment rate will fall to 7.4 percent, at best, by year's end. Economists regard a "normal" rate as 6 percent or less.

_ CONSUMER SPENDING

Consumer confidence fell in December as Americans began to fear the higher taxes threatened by the fiscal cliff. Confidence had reached a five-year high in November, fueled by slowly declining unemployment and a steady housing rebound. Consumer spending is the driving force of the economy.

But the deal to avoid the cliff won't necessarily ignite a burst of spending. Taxes will still rise for nearly 80 percent of working Americans because of the higher Social Security tax rate.

Since the recession officially ended in June 2009, pay has barely kept up with inflation. The Social Security tax increase will cut paychecks further. And with the job market likely to remain tight, few companies have much incentive to hand out raises.

Thanks to record-low interest rates, consumers have whittled their debts to about 113 percent of their after-tax income. That's the lowest share since mid-2003, according to Haver Analytics. And the delinquency rate for users of bank credit cards is at an 18-year low, the American Bankers Association reported Thursday.

Yet that hardly means people are ready to reverse course and ramp up credit-card purchases. Most new spending would have to come from higher incomes, says Ellen Zentner, senior economist at Nomura Securities.

"We don't see the mindset of, `Let's run up the credit card again,'" she says.

_ HOUSING

Economists are nearly unanimous about one thing: The housing market will keep improving.

That's partly because of a fact that's caught many by surprise: Five years after the housing bust left a glut of homes in many areas, the nation doesn't have enough houses. Only 149,000 new homes were for sale at the end of November, the government has reported. That's just above the 143,000 in August, the lowest total on records dating to 1963. And the supply of previously occupied homes for sale is at an 11-year low.

"We need to start building again," says Patrick Newport, an economist at IHS Global Insight.

Sales of new homes in November reached their highest annual pace in 2 1/2 years. They were 15 percent higher than a year earlier. And October marked a fifth straight month of year-over-year price increases in the 20 major cities covered by the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller national home price index.

Potential homebuyers "are more likely to buy, and banks are more likely to lend" when prices are rising, says James O'Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics. "It feeds on itself."

Higher prices are also encouraging builders to begin work on more homes. They were on track last year to start construction of the most homes in four years.

Ultra-low mortgage rates have helped spur demand. The average rate on the U.S. 30-year fixed mortgage is 3.35 percent, barely above the 3.31 percent reached in November, the lowest on records dating to 1971.

Housing tends to have an outside impact on the economy. A housing recovery boosts construction jobs and encourages more spending on furniture and appliances. And higher home prices make people feel wealthier, which can also lead to more spending.

"When you have a housing recovery, it's nearly impossible for the U.S. economy to slip into recession," Zentner says.

_ MANUFACTURING

Factories appear to be recovering slowly from a slump last fall. The Institute for Supply Management's index of manufacturing activity rose last month from November. And a measure of employment suggested that manufacturers stepped up hiring in December. Factories had cut jobs in three of the four months through November, according to government data.

Another encouraging sign: Americans are expected to buy more cars this year. That would help boost manufacturing output. Auto sales will likely rise nearly 7 percent in 2013 over last year to 15.3 million, according to the Polk research firm. Sales likely reached 14.5 million last year, the best since 2007. In 2009, sales were just 10.4 million, the fewest in more than 30 years.

And if Congress can raise the federal borrowing limit without a fight that damages confidence, companies might boost spending on computers, industrial machinery and other equipment in the second half of 2013, economists say. That would help keep factories busy.

Also on HuffPost:

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  • Military Health Care - $16 Billion

    In his last offer to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), President Barack Obama lobbied for $16 billion in cuts from the military's health care program, TRICARE. In 2012, the president also proposed hiking fees for military personnel and veterans who receive benefits under the program in an effort to help cut the defense budget. His proposal drew significant fire from Republican lawmakers and veterans' groups.

  • Military Retirement Program - $11 Billion

    Both sides agreed to cuts from the military retirement program. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) claimed during July 2011 talks that lawmakers had reached a tentative deal to slash <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">$11 billion</a>. Under the current system, military personnel receive immediate retirement benefits after serving for 20 years. According to a recent report from the Congressional Budget Office, the appropriation cost per active military service member has <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/publication/43574" target="_hplink">increased at a higher rate</a> than either inflation or the total pay package of private-sector employees. Given the budget constraints looming before the Defense Department, the CBO floated the idea of transitioning the military retirement program to a matching-payment model.

  • Federal Employee Retirement Program - $33 -$36 Billion

    Cantor claimed that Republicans and Democrats had agreed to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">$36 billion in savings</a> over 10 years from civilian retirement programs. The president proposed a marginally more modest figure of <a href="http://presspass.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/11/11/15089281-white-house-grand-bargain-offer-to-speaker-boehner-obtained-by-bob-woodward#.UKCJftkTtS8.twitter" target="_hplink">$33 billion</a> in his final offer to House Speaker John Boehner. Just this year, Republicans in the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform also looked to find savings from the Federal Employee Retirement System by <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/federal-eye/post/house-committee-approves-measure-upping-federal-employee-contributions-to-retirement-plan/2012/04/26/gIQAuoW6iT_blog.html" target="_hplink">requiring employees to pay more of their salary</a> into their pensions, which Democrats opposed as a pay cut that would make civil service less attractive for top talent. In September 2011, the federal government employed <a href="http://www.fedscope.opm.gov/cognos/cgi-bin/ppdscgi.exe?DC=Q&E=/FSe%20-%20Status/Employment%20-%20September%202012&LA=en&LO=en-us&BACK=/cognos/cgi-bin/ppdscgi.exe?toc=%2FFSe%20-%20Status&LA=en&LO=en-us" target="_hplink">over two million individuals</a>, either through the cabinets or independent agencies. Many Republicans have complained that the federal workforce has ballooned during the Obama administration, and while the raw number of employees has risen by <a href="http://www.thefactfile.com/2012/01/23/the-size-of-the-federal-workforce-rapid-growth-for-some-stagnation-for-others/" target="_hplink">14.4 percent</a> between Sept. 2007 and Sept. 2011, the percentage of public employees out of the total civilian workforce has <a href="http://www.thefactfile.com/2012/01/23/the-size-of-the-federal-workforce-rapid-growth-for-some-stagnation-for-others/" target="_hplink">remained fairly constant</a> around 1.2 percent since 2001. Much of the raw growth has been concentrated in the Department of Defense, Veteran's Affairs and Homeland Security.

  • Agricultural Subsidies - $30 - $33 Billion

    Democrats and Republicans agreed to cut as much as <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/12/fiscal-cliff-barack-obama-_n_2118739.html" target="_hplink">$30 billion</a> from agricultural subsidies; the main opposition fell along geographical lines rather than partisan ones. Hailing from an agriculture-heavy state, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) threatened to pull out of talks entirely if a deal included that much in subsidy reduction. The president ended up pushing for <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">$33 billion in cuts</a>, but that figure also included reductions in conservation programs. Baucus now tells HuffPost any cuts should be made through the farm bill, not fiscal cliff talks.

  • Food Stamps - $2 to $20 Billion

    Cantor pushed hard for significant cuts to food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. He charged that the federal government could save as much as <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">$20 billion over ten years</a> by eliminating waste and fraud, but the White House countered that the real number was closer to $2 billion. Instead, those cuts would force the program to scale back on the number of enrollees and the level of benefits it could offer.

  • Flood Assistance - $4 Billion

    Obama proposed cutting <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/12/fiscal-cliff-barack-obama-_n_2118739.html" target="_hplink">$4 billion from flood assistance</a> funding in his final offer to Boehner in July 2011. But Hurricane Sandy straining the National Flood Insurance Program; The New York Times <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/13/nyregion/federal-flood-insurance-program-faces-new-stress.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0" target="_hplink">reports</a> that thousands of claims are being submitted daily, which could send the overall cost upwards of $7 billion for a program that suffers from a ballooning debt problem. And with climate change promising <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/capital-weather-gang/post/climate-change-predictions-foresaw-hurricane-sandy-scenario-for-new-york-city/2012/10/31/b78de428-2374-11e2-ac85-e669876c6a24_blog.html" target="_hplink">future flooding disasters</a> along the eastern seaboard, cutting the program looks unwise.

  • Home Health Care - $50 Billion

    The president offered to cut <a href="http://presspass.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/11/11/15089281-white-house-grand-bargain-offer-to-speaker-boehner-obtained-by-bob-woodward#.UKCJftkTtS8.twitter" target="_hplink">$110 billion over the next decade</a> from the government's health care spending, excluding Medicare. Among the programs that could lose crucial funding is home health care, where Democrats and Republicans agreed to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">$50 billion in reductions</a> over ten years. Cantor pushed for closer to $300 billion in spending cuts to health care, but Democrats appeared to stand firm.

  • Higher Education - $10 Billion

    The president proposed cutting <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/12/fiscal-cliff-barack-obama-_n_2118739.html" target="_hplink">$10 billion from higher education</a> over the next decade, mostly from Pell grants. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/27/pell-grants-college-costs_n_1835081.html" target="_hplink">Over nine million students</a> relied on federal subsidized loans to afford college during the 2010-2011 school year, and the skyrocketing costs have continued to diminish the purchasing power of the Pell grant program. Obama has actively worked to make college more affordable for lower-income students. Key Republican lawmakers have attempted to cut funding for student loans; most notably, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) slashed the maximum award from $5,550 per student per year down to <a href="http://colorlines.com/archives/2011/07/dems_students_fight_to_save_pell_grants_amidst_debt_ceiling_talks.html" target="_hplink">just $3,040</a>.

  • Medicaid And Other Health- $110 Billion

    The original funding levels proposed by Cantor and the GOP leadership would turn the entitlement program for America's poor into little more than a block grant program, Democrats claimed during the 2011 debt ceiling talks. Under such a program, they argued that states would then <a href="http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-09-11/medicaid-to-lose-1-26-trillion-under-romney-block-grant.html" target="_hplink">drop more people from enrollment</a> and scale back on health benefits. In fiscal year 2009, <a href="http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0151.pdf" target="_hplink">over 62 million Americans</a> -- many of them children -- depended on Medicaid for their health care. But the president did agree to <a href="http://presspass.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/11/11/15089281-white-house-grand-bargain-offer-to-speaker-boehner-obtained-by-bob-woodward#.UKCJftkTtS8.twitter" target="_hplink">$110 billion</a> in cuts from Medicaid and other health programs.

  • Medicare - $250 Billion +

    Republicans pushed for a drastic overhaul to the entitlement program for America's seniors. Ryan infamously proposed turning Medicare into little more than a voucher system in which seniors would receive checks to purchase their own health care on the open market -- a plan that would ultimately <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kennethdavis/medicare-vouchers_b_1947804.html" target="_hplink">force individuals to shoulder more of the burden</a> for their health care costs. Democrats refused to accept changes similar to those in Ryan's plan. The president, however, was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">more open to other GOP suggestions</a> on Medicare. In his final offer to Boehner, he agreed cut $250 billion over the next ten years -- in part by increasing premiums for higher-income seniors and by raising the eligibility age from 65 to 67 (although over a longer time frame).

  • Tax Reform - $800 Billion - $1.6 Trillion

    Republicans have again and again <a href="http://www.politico.com/blogs/politicolive/0511/Boehner_Medicare_Medicaid__everything_should_be_on_the_table_except_raising_taxes.html" target="_hplink">decried any attempt</a> to raise taxes, either on the highest earners or on corporations. (A Democracy Corps/Campaign for America's Future survey shows that <a href="http://www.ourfuture.org/report/2012114508/cafdemocracy-corps-election-poll-2012" target="_hplink">70 percent of voters</a> support raising taxes on the wealthiest two percent of Americans.) Instead, Boehner has pushed for a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">comprehensive tax reform bill</a> that would lower the marginal tax rates while closing loopholes and eliminating deductions in order to raise around $800 billion in additional revenues. For many Democrats, <a href="http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323551004578117152861144968.html" target="_hplink">that figure simply isn't enough</a>. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney announced Tuesday that the president was aiming for as much as <a href="http://takingnote.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/13/showing-backbone-on-the-debt/" target="_hplink">$1.6 trillion in new revenues</a>, and the president told reporters on Wednesday that it would be <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/14/obama-tax-cuts_n_2131256.html" target="_hplink">practically impossible</a> to raise the amount of revenue he wanted simply from closing loopholes and lowering rates.

  • Social Security - $112 Billion

    Social Security <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/14/fiscal-cliff-social-security_n_2130762.html?utm_hp_ref=mostpopular" target="_hplink">isn't driving the deficit</a>, yet Republicans have <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">pursued drastic changes</a> to the program. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has promised that Social Security would be <a href="http://livewire.talkingpointsmemo.com/entry/reid-no-messing-with-social-security" target="_hplink">off the table</a> in the on-going negotiations to avoid the fiscal cliff, but Obama did concede to tying the benefits to a <a href="http://presspass.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/11/11/15089281-white-house-grand-bargain-offer-to-speaker-boehner-obtained-by-bob-woodward#.UKCJftkTtS8.twitter" target="_hplink">recalculated Consumer Price Index</a> that would ultimately provide less money to retirees. Sen. Bernie Sanders claims that, under such a measure, seniors who are currently 65 years-old would see their benefits drop by <a href="http://thehill.com/homenews/senate/267079-reid-assures-sanders-he-wont-agree-to-social-security-cuts-in-debt-deal" target="_hplink">$560 a month in 10 years</a> and by as much as <a href="http://thehill.com/homenews/senate/267079-reid-assures-sanders-he-wont-agree-to-social-security-cuts-in-debt-deal" target="_hplink">$1,000 in 20 years</a>. The Moment of Truth project (led by the two former co-chairs of the president's deficit reduction commission, former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles) claims that the recalculated CPI could save as much as <a href="http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/11767/the_social_security_cut_washington_does_not_want_you_to_understand/" target="_hplink">$112 billion</a> from Social Security over the next ten years.

  • Tax Loopholes And Deductions - Up To $180 Billion

    Although Cantor and other GOP House members demanded that any deficit-reduction deal brokered in 2011 be classified as <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">revenue-neutral</a>, they were open to closing particular loopholes in the corporate tax code and limiting itemized deductions for individuals -- given that they were offset by other tax cuts. Out of the $50 billion in savings to be found over the next decade from closing loopholes, Cantor proposed getting $3 billion from eliminating the break for corporate-jet owners and another $20 billion from voiding the subsidies for the oil and gas industries. On the individual earner side, he proposed eliminating the second-home mortgage deduction for $20 billion, as well as limiting the mortgage deduction for higher-income households to rake in another $20 billion. He also offered to tighten the tax treatment of retirement accounts. But Democrats wanted to see even greater action taken on itemized deductions. In June 2011, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) proposed raising $130 billion in new revenues by capping itemized deductions at 35 percent for the highest income brackets. The GOP response to his proposal at the time was a resounding "no."

  • Bush Tax Cuts For The Wealthy - $950 Billion

    Set to expire on Dec. 31, 2012, the Bush tax cuts represent one of the most controversial elements of the so-called fiscal cliff. They added over <a href="http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2011/07/24/opinion/sunday/24editorial_graph2/24editorial_graph2-popup.gif" target="_hplink">$1.8 trillion to the deficit</a> between 2002 and 2009. Yet Republicans argue that an extension is necessary to create jobs and spur economic growth. But a <a href="http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/PDF/0915taxesandeconomy.pdf" target="_hplink">study</a> from the Congressional Research Service found that tax cuts for the wealthiest earners had little economic effect. The White House is pushing for a renewal only of those tax breaks for the lower- and middle-class Americans in order to save the average middle-class family <a href="http://money.cnn.com/2012/10/01/pf/taxes/fiscal-cliff-tax/index.html" target="_hplink">between $2,000 and $3,500</a> next year. Letting the cuts expire for those earning over $250,000 a year -- or the wealthiest two percent of Americans -- would haul in <a href="http://www.offthechartsblog.org/cbo-ending-high-income-tax-cuts-would-save-almost-1-trillion/" target="_hplink">$950 billion</a> in savings over the next decade, according to the CBO. Obama stressed how much the country stood to gain from such an approach Wednesday during a press conference. "If we right away say 98 percent of Americans are not going to see their taxes go up — 97 percent of small businesses are not going to see their taxes go up," he said. "If we get that in place, we're actually <a href="http://www.cnbc.com/id/49821777" target="_hplink">removing half of the fiscal cliff</a>."