* Initial jobless claims near 4 1/2 year low
* Washington to resume cliff talks
* Futures up: Dow 9 pts, S&P 2.2 pts, Nasdaq up 6 pts
By Chuck Mikolajczak
NEW YORK, Dec 27 U.S. stock index futures signaled a modestly higher open on Thursday as U.S. President Barack Obama returned to Washington to restart negotiations over the "fiscal cliff."
Obama cut short a Christmas holiday in Hawaii to fly back to the capital and make another push for a deal between Democrats and Republicans to head off tax hikes and spending cuts worth $600 billion set to begin on Jan. 1.
In a sign of a possible way to break the deadlock in Congress, Republican House Speaker John Boehner said if the Democrat-controlled Senate were to pass a bill, the House would at least consider it.
A higher market open would put the S&P 500 on track to halt a three-day decline, but signs of an improving economy have taken a back seat to the fiscal cliff negotiations.
Initial claims for unemployment benefits dropped 12,000 to a seasonally adjusted 350,000 last week and the four-week moving average fell to the lowest since March 2008.
"Unfortunately jobless claims right now are kind of false readings until we know more," said Chris Kichurchak, vice president of Strategic Wealth Partners in Seven Hills, Ohio.
"It's one of those times right now where we have to see more out of Washington first before we have a full reading of what the future looks like for any growth in the economy."
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced the first of a series of measures that should push back the government's debt ceiling by around two months.
More data in the session at 10 a.m. (1500 GMT) will give investors a look at December consumer confidence and November new home sales. The Conference Board's main consumer confidence index is expected to show a reading of 70 versus the 73.7 reported in November while new-home sales are expected to be 378,000 annualized units.
S&P 500 futures rose 2.2 points and were above fair value, a formula that evaluates pricing by taking into account interest rates, dividends and time to expiration on the contract. Dow Jones industrial average futures gained 9 points, and Nasdaq 100 futures climbed 6 points.
The benchmark S&P 500 index has fallen 1.7 percent over the past three sessions as negotiations over the budget crisis have stalled, its longest losing streak since mid-November.
But the S&P has recouped nearly all of its decline since the U.S. elections and is up 12.9 percent for the year, putting it on pace for its best year since 2009.
Marvell Technology Group trimmed earlier losses in premarket trading after it said it would seek to overturn a jury's finding of patent infringement. Marvell stock was down 4.1 percent at $7.10. Shares had fallen earlier after a federal jury found the company infringed two patents held by Carnegie Mellon University and ordered the chipmaker to pay $1.17 billion in damages.
BCD Semiconductor Manufacturing surged 94.5 percent to $7.74 in premarket action after the company agreed to be acquired by Diodes Inc for $151 million.