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Both sides hint at renewed talks on U.S. "fiscal cliff"

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With little to show after a month of posturing, the White House and Republicans in Congress dropped hints on Thursday that they had resumed low-level private talks on breaking the stalemate over the "fiscal cliff" but refused to divulge details.

A day after a phone conversation between President Barack Obama and John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, appeared to kick-start communications, both sides used similar language to describe the state of negotiations but imposed a media blackout on developments.

"Lines of communication remain open," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters when pressed on whether staff talks were taking place to avoid the steep tax hikes and budget cuts set for the first of next year unless the parties agree on a way to stop them.

Asked the same question, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel also said "lines of communication are open."

The acknowledgement, even without signs of anything approaching a breakthrough, passed for encouraging news after a week of public maneuvering on the fiscal cliff by both sides to gain the maximum political and public relations advantage.

Republicans have worried publicly and privately that they are losing the war of appearances in the battle over the cliff.

On Thursday, another poll showed Republicans may have reason to worry about public perception. A Quinnipiac University survey found respondents trust Obama and Democrats more than Republicans on the cliff talks by a wide margin - 53 percent to 36 percent.

In both public statements and private encounters, Obama has tried to encourage Republicans wavering from the position of the party leadership.

Republican Representative Tom Cole, who last week broke ranks with his party and agreed to accept higher tax rates on the richest Americans, said Obama took him aside at a White House Christmas party on Monday and joked about the criticism Cole had received from Republicans.

"The president pulled me over and he said, 'Cole, come closer, I want to see the bruises,'" Cole told Reuters. "He said, 'Seriously, I will go further on this thing than you guys think. I know we can get something done.'"

While other Republicans have questioned Obama's commitment, Cole said, "I take him at his word," adding: "The best is to get to that discussion as quickly as we can."

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