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Republicans losing public opinion wars in "fiscal cliff" talks

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) speaks to the media outside his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, December 7, 2012. REUTERS/Yuri
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) speaks to the media outside his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, December 7, 2012. REUTERS/Yuri

By Fred Barbash

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Negotiations are expected to continue Thursday on the "fiscal cliff" with Republicans at a growing public opinion disadvantage and approval ratings for President Barack Obama rising to levels not seen since the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Senior Democratic Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota said on MSNBC late Wednesday that he thought Obama and House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner were edging closer to a deal.

He added that he hoped something will be announced next week to avert the steep tax hikes and budget cuts set for the start of 2013.

"I believe that they will have a framework agreement," Conrad said. "I believe they'll have it early next week. And I believe it will secure the votes in both the Senate and the House. We may miss some on the wings, but I think the center will hold."

Republican Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, in a Fox Business News interview Wednesday evening, disagreed with Conrad's assessment.

"I started pretty optimistic about this that we could get this done well before the holidays, but I don't feel that way anymore," Brady said. "It seems to me a decision's been made perhaps by the White House already to take us off this fiscal cliff."

Conservative Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina said the economy had already been damaged by the uncertainty caused by the deadlock.

"We can't fix it Christmas Eve and expect it all to bounce back in January," he said Thursday on CBS.

Sharp differences remained between congressional Republicans and the White House in talks to avert the cliff, and negotiators warned the showdown could drag on past Christmas.

Both sides refused to give any ground in public, with the main sticking point being the expiring tax cuts, which Obama wants extended for all but high earners and Boehner wants extended for everyone.

Polling shows strong support for Obama's position. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC survey released late Wednesday, three-quarters of Americans say they would accept raising taxes on the wealthy to avoid the cliff.

Among Republicans, some 61 percent say they would accept tax increases on high earners.

An ABC News-Washington Post poll released Tuesday indicted that nearly half of Americans approve of Obama's handling of the negotiations versus the quarter of respondents who approved of Boehner's.

At the same time, Obama's public opinion rating has reached about 54 percent in the Real Clear Politics polling average, above the level where it peaked in May 2011, when bin Laden was killed.

Republicans are in a bad negotiating position, Conrad said, noting that the Democratic-controlled Senate has already passed a bill preserving tax cuts for the middle-class, leaving the Republican-controlled House standing in the way.

"And so Republicans are really in an awkward position," he said.

Boehner, meanwhile, faces increasingly conflicting pressures, from the right to hold firm, from the Republican center to be flexible and from the polls to abandon his position.

(Editing by Xavier Briand)

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