WASHINGTON — It's the scenario that's been spooking employers and investors and slowing the U.S. economy:
Congress and the White House fail to strike a budget deal by New Year's Day. Their stalemate triggers sharp tax increases and spending cuts. Those measures shrink consumer spending, stifle job growth, topple stock prices and push the economy off a "fiscal cliff" and into recession.
The reality may be a lot less bleak.
Even if New Year's passed with no deal, few businesses or consumers would likely panic as long as an agreement seemed likely soon. The tax increases and spending cuts could be retroactively repealed after Jan. 1.
And the impact of the tax increases would be felt only gradually. Most people would receive slightly less money in each paycheck.
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