Stocks on Wall Street slumped in a fourth-straight session but recovered sharply toward the end as hopes rose of a budget settlement.
This followed reports that the House of Representatives plans to reconvene on Sunday. That might allow time to prepare for the so-called fiscal cliff, the set of tax hikes and spending cuts set to start in January unless lawmakers can make an alternative arrangement.
According to news reports, frenzied phone calls are being made among political leaders, including President Obama, who has cut short his Hawaiian holiday to be be in Washington and achieve a breakthrough.
One Republicasn aide was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying the first House vote is set for 6.30pm on Dunday, though the subject of the vote isn't known.
The Republicans have the majority in the House, while the Democrats rule the Senate. Earlier, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said it looked like the US was headed over the cliff, putting the blame on Republicans opposed to tax cuts.
Adding to the fiscal drama, the US Treasury Department says the country's legal borrowing limit will be reached by Monday but some emergency measures can keep the government operating for several more weeks if needed.
The budget uncertainty is weighing on Americans' feelings about their future, according to the Conference Board, whose consumer confidence index has fallen to its lowest level since August.
Other economic data were more upbeat. New home sales rose in November to their highest level in more than two years, while the number of US workers filing applications for jobless benefits fell last week.
At the market close, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 18.20 points, or 0.1%, at 13,096.39 after being down more than 100 points earlier in the session.
The S&P 500 finished down 0.1% to 1418.08 and the Nasdaq Composite was also down 0.1% to 2985.91.
Other markets: Europe, Asia up
European markets gained some ground. The Stoxx Europe 600 rose 0.3% as markets reopened from a two-day Christmas break.
Better-than-expected Italian manufacturing confidence data boosted the FTSE Mib index in Milan by 0.9%.
Asian markets were mostly higher as hopes for more aggressive stimulus measures in Japan continued to provide a spark. The Nikkei Stock Average climbed 0.9% to the highest level since March 10, 2011, the day before the country was hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami.
In currency trading, the US dollar hit a 28-month high against the yen, but was little changed against the euro.
In commodities, February crude-oil futures rose less than 0.1% to $US91 a barrel, while January gold futures gave up 0.3% to $US1655.10 an ounce.
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