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So now to the question of what happens if the White House and Congress do not reach a deal. Much of the debate is focused on the expiration of tax cuts set for January 1st. The tax increases are only part of it. There will also be massive cuts in federal spending, and they will be felt throughout the economy, as NPR's Jim Zarroli explains.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: This stalemate got underway two years ago. Congress was locked in a bitter partisan battle over whether to extend the Bush tax cuts, so it passed what was known as the Budget Control Act of 2011. It said if Congress couldn't resolve its spending battles by this year, there would be what are called sequester cuts - automatic, massive reductions in nearly every part of the budget. Cary Leahey of Decision Economics says the cuts affect good programs and bad.

CARY LEAHEY: Each particular program which would be affected would all be cut pretty much by the same percentage amount, and it would not be done rationally. It would just be done that you cut all programs the same.

ZARROLI: All together, the cuts would eliminate more than $110 billion in federal spending in 2013 alone. Nearly half of that would be in defense spending. But there would also be cuts in education, health care and law enforcement. Much of the money goes to the states in the form of grants. Ingrid Schroeder is with the Pew Center on the States.

INGRID SCHROEDER: State budget officers and policymakers have already had to make a series of really difficult decisions in balancing their budgets. And this is just going to add a whole other layer of complexity onto some already really tough decisions that they've made.

ZARROLI: Schroeder says states like Virginia and Maryland - which depend heavily on federal spending - will take a hit. So will states like Hawaii, with a strong military presence. Former Federal Reserve vice president Alan Blinder says cuts in defense spending have a way of spilling over into the rest of the economy.

ALAN BLINDER: If you run a business near a military base - a cafe, a grocery store, a bowling alley, a movie, a restaurant, anything - and the military base has meaningful cutbacks in spending, you're going to feel it as a civilian.

ZARROLI: But Blinder says even without this kind of spillover effect, the looming sequester cuts will slow the economy down at a time when it's already weak. He says the cuts could reduce economic activity by anywhere from seven-tenths of a percentage point to 1 percent. And a 1 percent reduction in economic activity means about a 1 percent cut in the labor market.

BLINDER: And 1 percent of employment in the United States now is roughly 1.3 million jobs.

ZARROLI: So we would lose that many jobs?

BLINDER: Yeah. That's not good.

ZARROLI: Blinder notes that the cuts won't necessarily happen right away. He says the government has some wiggle room about when it implements them. So if the two sides are close to an agreement on January 1st, they can stall a bit. But, he says, the window for resolving the dispute is closing.

BLINDER: My judgment would be that if this is not settled by the second half of January, we're going to feel severe effects on the economy.

ZARROLI: And there are signs the effects are already being felt. Cary Leahey says companies need time to plan when they bring in new people, and they may already be holding back on their hiring in anticipation of the cuts.

LEAHEY: So if the numbers for this Friday's employment report are abysmal, it may not be the storm. It may be preparing for these sequester cuts.

ZARROLI: And all this will be happening at a time when consumers are already feeling the bite from higher taxes. And that could be an even bigger problem for the economy. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

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