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Senate votes to extend jobless benefits, faces divided House

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Democratic-led U.S. Senate passed a bill on Monday to restore expired jobless benefits for 2.4 million Americans who have been out of work for at least six months.

President Barack Obama responded by urging the Republican-led House of Representatives to give the measure final approval so he can sign it into law. But it was unclear if it would do so.

"The Senate just took action on a bipartisan bill" to renew unemployment insurance, Obama said in a Twitter message. "It's up to the House to follow suit."

The bill, passed by the Senate 59-38, had long seemed certain to die in the House amid stiff Republican opposition. Pressure has mounted, however, for the House to help the unemployed this election year.

Shortly after the Senate vote, seven House Republicans - many from high unemployment regions or districts that are seen as competitive in the November election - wrote party leadership, asking that a House vote be held on the bill or on a similar measure.

In addition, the lead Republican sponsor of the Senate bill, Dean Heller of Nevada, said he wants to meet with House Speaker John Boehner and find a way to move the effort forward.

Boehner and other Republicans oppose the bill, saying it does not meet their demands that it include job creation provisions. Boehner has also called the measure "unworkable," citing concerns by state administrators.

But Boehner has not closed the door to some sort of help for the unemployed, and backers of the legislation argue that any problems with it on the state level can be fixed.

Boehner's press secretary, Michael Steel, said: "The speaker has said since before Christmas that we are open to looking at extending emergency UI (unemployment insurance) - as long as it is paid-for, and does something to create more private-sector jobs."

Bill backers earlier resolved the demand that it be paid for by offsetting the $10 billion cost of an extension with savings elsewhere.

The bill would restore jobless benefits for five months, retroactive to last December when they began to expire for those who have been out of work for at least six months.

The Emergency Unemployment Compensation program began in 2008. Under it, people who lose their jobs typically receive state unemployment benefits for 26 weeks. Then they are eligible for federal relief for up to an additional 47 weeks.

Congress allowed funding for the program to expire in December with lawmakers struggling since then to find a way to extend it for a 13th time.

The seven House Republicans who wrote Republican leadership,

asking for relief for the unemployed, include: Mike Grimm, Chris Gibson and Peter King of New York; Jon Runyan, Christopher Smith and Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey, and Joe Heck of Nevada.

(Reporting By Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Sandra Maler and Lisa Shumaker)

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