The Dow Jones industrial average fell 14 points to close at 12,952 Tuesday. It traded in a narrow range of just 82 points.
The Standard and Poor's 500 index lost two points to 1,407. The Nasdaq composite was down five and a half points at 2,997.
Investors are waiting on developments from Washington in the budget talks, which are aimed at avoiding a series of sharp government spending cuts and tax increases that begin to kick in Jan. 1.
Big Lots soared after the discount retailer raised its forecast for full-year profits.
Falling stocks narrowly outnumbered rising ones on the New York Stock Exchange. Volume was light at 3.2 billion shares.