BERLIN (AP) -- Leaders of Germany's center-left Social Democrats agreed Friday to enter exploratory talks on joining or supporting a new government under Chancellor Angela Merkel, moving unprecedentedly long efforts to form a new administration a small step forward.
Merkel's conservative Union bloc and the Social Democrats have governed Germany together since 2013 in a "grand coalition" of the country's biggest parties. The Social Democrats initially said they would go into opposition after a disastrous election result in September.
The party reluctantly reconsidered after Merkel's talks with two smaller parties collapsed last month, but party leader Martin Schulz - Merkel's defeated challenger in September - is treading carefully to avoid alienating a membership that is deeply suspicious of another coalition.
If the Social Democrats don't enter a coalition with Merkel's bloc, that would leave an unprecedented minority government led by Merkel or a new election as possibilities. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who alone has the power to dissolve parliament, has made it clear he doesn't want a new election.
While Merkel's bloc wants a coalition, Schulz indicated the exploratory talks will also consider the possibility of a looser arrangement that still would allow a Merkel-led government to be formed.
"Whether the talks will lead to the formation of a government is open," he said Friday. "I must repeat, and we mean this very seriously: in opening these exploratory talks, we have made no decision on a particular form of putting together a government."
An initial phase of exploratory talks likely will be held during the first two weeks of January, Schulz said. A party congress to decide what happens next - approving the possible opening of formal coalition talks, for example - has been penciled in for Jan. 14 but could be delayed, he said.
Schulz has already promised a vote by the full party membership on any coalition deal.
That means Germany is on course easily to beat its previous record of 86 days - set in 2013 - for the time from an election to the swearing-in of a new government.
Merkel, speaking later Friday at a congress in Nuremberg of her Bavarian conservative allies, the Christian Social Union, voiced "great respect" for the Social Democrats' decision. She said she hopes the talks will "deliver the foundation for a stable government, for the formation of a coalition."
"Europe without a strong Germany, without strong German-French cooperation, is unthinkable, so we have a huge responsibility to form a stable government," she said.