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Looking for Signs of a 'Fiscal Cliff' Deal

Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

There was almost total radio silence from key players Monday in the wake of Speaker John Boehner's clandestine White House negotiating session with President Barack Obama Sunday afternoon.

Spokespeople for both leaders used pre-agreed to phrases to describe the talks, creating an atmosphere of news lockdown.

"I can confirm there was a meeting and the lines of communication remain open but I cannot characterize the talks, the conversations beyond that," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters flying with the president on Air Force One Monday.

And on the Republican side, Speaker Boehner's spokesman Michael Steel said only, "Discussions with the White House are taking place, but we have no detail to share about the substance of those conversations."

But that doesn't mean there's no way to tell what's going on.

(Read More: 'Cliff' Talk Failure Could Trigger a Market Sell-Off)

Washington reporters have become as adept at reading the signs in Washington as the Catholic faithful waiting for puffs of white smoke from the Vatican, or the old Soviet watchers who counted generals on display at Kremlin parades.

So what should you watch for?

Here are four indicators that we're still on track for a deal. As long as all these dynamics continue to play out, markets should bet that its unlikely we'll go over the "fiscal cliff" at the end of the year. But of course, things could change at any moment.

1. The Echo Chamber: Obama and Boehner spokespeople, who are not used to working closely together, are suddenly singing off the same song sheet. Remember Carney's "lines of communication remain open" comment from Air Force One? He was simply quoting Boehner spokesman Steel, who himself said "the lines of communication are open" on separate occasions on Thursday, Friday, Sunday and Monday to describe the talks. Carney liked the turn of phrase so much, he used it twice on Monday. If you're rooting for a deal, that's a good thing. It's a sign that Obama and Boehner are giving each other some running room to negotiate privately, and their aides can at least work together enough to write a public script.

(Read More: Corker: Why We Should Just Raise Taxes on Rich.)

2. Taking Turns: Its a little like Washington ping pong. First the president meets with GOP leaders, then Democratic, then GOP again, etc. On Wednesday, The president spoke on the phone with Speaker Boehner. Then Friday, he met one on one with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. Then Sunday, a face to face sit down with Boehner at the White House, and then Monday, the president called from Air Force One to talk to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid. It sure looks like something is being hashed out behind the scenes, and the president is checking each concession or advance with his Democratic allies on the Hill to make sure they stay on board.

3. Crickets: It was only hours after Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner presented the president's opening offer to Speaker Boehner that the details first surfaced in the Wall Street Journal. It was a huge leak, and it was designed to be a very public rebuke of the president's bargaining position. But since the GOP made its public counteroffer, none of the details of subsequent negotiations has hit the press. That lack of leaks is a sign that neither side is ready to reject what the others are offering, and it could be a harbinger of a deal.

(Read More: '40% Chance' of Fiscal Cliff Deal Before Year End: Bowles.)

4. Out of the Running: As long as House members keep announcing they aren't running to challenge Boehner for his job as Speaker of the House, he's in a strong position to continue as the party's lead negotiator. On Monday, for example, Rep. Tom Price's office released a statement saying the Georgia congressman will not campaign for Speaker in the election early next year. And Reps Eric Cantor (R-Va) and Paul Ryan (R-Wis) who are viewed as the top threats to Boehner's leadership, both signed on to Boehner's first offer to the president, which offered a controversial-in-Republican-circles $800 billion in new revenue to the president.

(Read More: Maybe Going Off the 'Cliff' Won't Be So Bad)

—By CNBC's Eamon Javers; Follow him on Twitter: @eamonjavers

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