* Both sides say lines of communication are open
* Debt ceiling becomes focus as both sides seek advantage
* Obama visits Virginia family to highlight tax plan
By Thomas Ferraro and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, Dec 6 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
In both public statements and private encounters, Obama has
tried to encourage Republicans wavering from the position of the
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."
Obama, meanwhile, played to his strengths with the latest in
a series of the sort of public events he has used against
Republicans in the fiscal cliff fight: a visit with a family in
the Virginia suburbs of Washington to illustrate how Republican
tax proposals would hurt the middle class.
"The message that I think we all want to send to members of
Congress is: this is a solvable problem," Obama said while
visiting the home of a couple in Falls Church, Virginia. "We are
in the midst of the Christmas season and I think the American
people are counting on this getting solved."
Neither side in the showdown would characterize Wednesday's
conversation between Boehner and Obama or suggest it opened up
new area of compromise.
Obama and Democrats in Congress want the tax cuts set to
expire at the end of the year to be extended for taxpayers with
incomes below $250,000 a year but not for the wealthiest 2
percent of Americans.
In exchange, the president has said he is willing to
consider significant spending cuts wanted by Republicans to
"entitlement" programs such as Medicare, the government health
insurance plan for seniors.
Republicans have held out for an extension of all the tax
cuts, but they have become increasingly divided about whether
they can prevail in the face of Obama's firm stance and
Republican control of only the House but not the U.S. Senate.
TANGLING OVER DEBT LIMIT
The debt ceiling issue - the same one that provoked a
showdown in 2011 that led to a downgrading of the U.S. credit
rating - has become a centerpiece of the fiscal cliff debate,
thanks in part to Obama's insistence that Congress give him
enhanced power to increase the debt limit, which needs to be
raised again in the next few months.
"It ought to be done without delay and without drama,"
Carney, the White House spokesman, said of raising the debt
That issue produced a largely partisan procedural scuffle on
Thursday in the Senate when Republicans tried to provoke a vote
on giving Obama the power to raise the debt ceiling on his own.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who had argued
that not even Democrats would support giving Obama greater
flexibility, tried to prove it by pushing for a vote.
When Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid went ahead and
scheduled it, confident he had enough support to win on a
straight majority vote, the Republicans backed down, with
McConnell demanding that 60 votes be required for passage, more
than the Democrats can muster.
No new vote was scheduled. While the measure could come up
again, it was dead for the moment.
"Senator McConnell took obstruction to new heights by
filibustering his own bill," Reid said in a statement.
Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York told
reporters that Republicans were losing the argument on raising
top tax rates and "are trying to pivot away to other parts of
the fiscal cliff in a desperate attempt to assert leverage and
change the subject."
The exchange may be a taste of things to come as Congress
moves toward the fiscal cliff deadline.
Economists have warned a plunge over the cliff could drive
the economy back into a recession. Mark Zandi, chief economist
at Moody's Analytics, told the congressional Joint Economic
Committee that failure to strike a deal could have serious
economic consequences relatively quickly.
"By mid-February you would be doing a lot of damage," Zandi