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Stocks end higher after upbeat economic data 

Stocks closed higher for a second session in choppy trading Thursday, with the Dow finishing above the psychologically-important 13,000 level, following comments from several lawmakers on the looming "fiscal cliff" and after an earlier batch of upbeat economic data.

“If you’re a day trader, you absolutely trade it because you love the volatility—that’s how you make money,” said Kenny Polcari, independent trader. “But if you’re a long-term person, I don’t think you chase it at all. You remain patient and let the prices come to you.”

The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 36.71 points, or 0.28 percent, to close at 13,021.82, led by UnitedHealth. Intel dragged the blue-chip laggards.

The S&P 500 climbed 6.02 points, or 0.43 percent, to end at 1,415.95. The Nasdaq rose 20.25 points, or 0.68 percent, to finish at 3,012.03. Both averages are now in positive territory for the month. The CBOE Volatility Index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, slid near 15.

All key S&P sectors closed higher, led by health care and telecoms.

Following a ray of hope in the last few sessions that a deal could be reached to avoid the "fiscal cliff," Republican and Democratic leaders pointed fingers at each other for not making any substantive offers.

"Based on where we stand today—first, despite the claims that the President supports a balanced approach, the Democrats have yet to get serious about real spending cuts," said Speaker John Boehner in a press conference. "And secondly, no substantive progress have been made in the talks between the White House and the House [of Representatives] over the last two weeks."

"We're still waiting for a serious offer from the Republicans," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, shortly after Boehner's speech. "Now is the time to for Republicans to move past this 'happy talk' about revenues—and put specifics on the table...We're not going to kick the can down the road—we're going to finalize this this year."

Stocks have gyrated in recent weeks as investors reacted to every headline from lawmakers in Washington. 

On Wednesday, Obama said he was hopeful a deal to avert the "fiscal cliff" could be reached before Christmas. The president also highlighted some flexibility regarding taxes for high-income Americans.

Among earnings, Tiffany tumbled after the luxury goods retailer missed earnings expectations and slashed its full-year profit forecast, citing difficult economic conditions in addition to tough comparisons to a year ago.

Kroger jumped after the supermarket chain beat earnings forecasts and lifted its profit outlook for the year.

Microsoft announced that it is pricing its new Surface Pro device at $899 for the 64GB version. The device is expected to be released in early 2013.

Research In Motion soared to hit a six-month high after the BlackBerry maker was upgraded to "buy" from "neutral" at Goldman Sachs.

Intel fell to lead the Dow laggards after Goldman Sachs lowered its price target on the firm to $16 from $20.

Macy's , Nordstrom , Kohl's and Target all declined after the retailers missed monthly same-store sales expectations.

On the economic front, pending home sales climbed 5.2 percent in October, surging to its highest level in more than five years, according to the National Association of Realtors.

The economy grew at a 2.7 percent annual rate, faster pace than initially thought in the third quarter, according to the Commerce Department. However, momentum is likely to slow as the nation braces for deep cuts in government spending and tax increases early next year.

And weekly jobless claims declined for a second week, falling 23,000 to a seasonally adjusted 393,000, according to the Labor Department. The Labor Department added there was no pronounced impact of the Hurricane Sandy in last week's data.

The government auctioned $29 billion in 7-year notes at a high yield of 1.045 percent. The bid-to-cover was 2.81.