Stocks dipped Wednesday as talks aimed at averting a "fiscal cliff" hit another snag in Washington. General Motors surged after the government announced plans to shed its ownership stake in the company.
The Dow Jones industrial average was down 23 points at 13,328 just after 2 p.m. EST. The Standard & Poor's 500 index was down four at 1,443. The Nasdaq composite index was off a point at 3,053.
The White House threatened to veto House Speaker John Boehner's backup plan for averting automatic tax increases and government spending cuts that are set to take effect Jan. 1 if no deal is reached on cutting the government's budget deficit.
Boehner had proposed a "Plan B," separate from negotiations with the White House, that would extend decade-old tax cuts for everyone making less than $1 million a year.
The S&P 500 index gained more than 2 percent over the previous two days in part because of optimism about a deal taking shape.
GM soared $1.76, or 7 percent, to $27.25 after the company said it would spend $5.5 billion to buy 200 million shares of its own stock back from the federal government.
The government pledged to sell its remaining 300 million shares on the open market and shed its entire ownership stake in 12 to 15 months. The government got GM stock as part of a 2009 bailout.
U.S. builders broke ground on fewer homes in November after starting work in October at the fastest pace in four years. Superstorm Sandy probably distorted the totals in the Northeast.
The Commerce Department said builders began construction of houses and apartments at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 861,000. That was 3 percent less than October's annual rate of 888,000, the fastest since July 2008.
Materials stocks and industrial companies, both of which depend on the housing market, were down slightly.
Elsewhere on Wall Street, health care stocks and makers of consumer products were among the biggest losers. Technology stocks managed only a small loss.
Business software maker Oracle jumped $1.32 to $34.20 after reporting stronger earnings as companies splurged on software and other technology.
The yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note fell 0.04 percentage point to 1.78 percent. The price of oil climbed $1.59, or 1.8 percent, to $89.99 per barrel.
Among other stocks in the news:
-- FedEx gained $2.27, or 2.5 percent, to $94.63. The world's No. 2 package delivery company lowered its economic forecast for the United States but said it was more confident in its own ability to increase earnings.
-- Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia gained 10 cents to $2.68. It fell during the day to $2.30, a three-year low, after CEO Lisa Gersh stepped down after less than a year on the job.