WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. employers likely kept hiring last month at a modest but steady pace, despite tense negotiations that pushed the economy to the brink of the fiscal cliff.
Economists forecast that employers added 155,000 jobs in December, according to a survey by FactSet. That would be slightly higher than November's 148,000. The unemployment rate is projected to remain at 7.7 percent.
Stable hiring would mean the job market held up during the talks between Congress and the White House over tax increases and spending cuts that were not resolved until the new year.
A trio of encouraging reports Thursday on private hiring and layoffs suggested companies did not panic last month, although the Labor Department report will offer a more accurate measure of how businesses responded to the uncertainty in Washington.
"Given that we have restraints, the labor market data do appear to be improving," said Dana Saporta, an economist at Credit Suisse.
While Congress and the White House reached a deal this week that removed the threat of income tax increases on most Americans, they postponed the more difficult decisions on cutting spending. And the government must also increase its $16.4 trillion borrowing limit by around late February or risk defaulting on its debt.
Congressional Republicans are pressing for deep spending cuts in return for any increase in the borrowing limit. President Barack Obama has repeatedly said he wants the issues kept separate.
Depending on December's figure, hiring may finish the year slightly below its 2011 pace.
Employers added 1.84 million jobs in 2011, the most in five years. In the first 11 months of 2012, employers added 1.67 million. Job gains would have to top 170,000 in December to push 2012 ahead of the previous year. Some economists do expect gains at that level or higher.
On a monthly basis, the differences are slight. Job gains averaged 151,500 a month in the first 11 months of 2012, compared with 153,000 in 2011.
Hiring probably won't rise above the current 150,000 per month trend until after the borrowing limit is resolved, economists say.
A similar fight over raising the debt ceiling in 2011 was only settled at the last hour and nearly brought the nation to the brink of default.
"That's not an environment where you're likely to be taking risks," such as adding jobs, said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight.
Reports Thursday indicated the job market is improving slightly.
The most encouraging sign came from payroll provider ADP. Its monthly employment survey showed businesses added 215,000 jobs last month, the most in 10 months and much higher than November's total of 148,000.
Economists tend to approach the ADP survey with some skepticism because it has diverged sharply at times from the government's job figures.
But some economists were also hopeful after seeing businesses were less inclined to cut jobs last month.
Outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas said that the number of announced job cuts fell 43 percent in December from November, and overall planned layoffs in 2012 fell to the lowest level since 1997.
The decline in layoffs coincided with a drop last month in the number of people who applied for unemployment benefits. The four-week average was little changed at 360,000 last week. That's only slightly above the previous week's 359,750, which was the lowest since March 2008.
Still, the unemployment rate remains high. It fell to 7.7 percent in November from 7.9 percent in October. But that was mostly because many of the unemployed stopped looking for jobs. The government counts people as unemployed only if they are actively searching for work.
There are signs the economy is improving. The once-battered housing market is recovering, which should lead to more construction jobs this year. Companies ordered more long-lasting manufactured goods in November, a sign they are investing more in equipment and software. And Americans spent more in November. Consumer spending drives nearly 70 percent of economic growth.
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