) -- The number of Americans filing unemployment claims for the first time unexpectedly fell last week, the Labor Department said early Thursday.

The advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims decreased by 3,000 to 420,000 in the week ended Dec.11, from the previous week's revised estimate of 423,000. Analysts were expecting initial claims to rise to 425,000, after it dropped to 421,000, in the previous week.

The number of Americans filing continuing claims -- those who have been receiving unemployment insurance for at least a week -- came in higher than expected at 4.13 million for the week ended Dec. 4, an increase of 22,000 from the previous week's revised figure of 4.113 million. Consensus estimates projected continuing claims to come in at 4.07 million.

The four-week moving average in initial claims, which smoothes the volatility in week-to-week reports, was 422,750, a decrease of 5,250 from the previous week's revised average of 428,000. The four-week moving average in continuing claims was 4.185 million, a decrease of 47,250 from the preceding week's revised average of 4.232 million. The numbers do not include millions of those who claim benefits under the extended unemployment benefits program.

The advance seasonally adjusted insured unemployment rate of 3.3% for the week ending Dec.4, unchanged from the previous week.


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Thursday's claims data comes as the House of Representatives prepares to vote on the controversial tax extension bill. The bill extends Bush-era individual tax rates that were set to expire on Dec. 31, prevents a sharp tax increase on capital gains and dividends, and renews long-term jobless benefits for another 13 months.

Markets have cheered the Obama tax deal, with economists expecting the economy to make a speedier recovery once the uncertainty on taxes is resolved. The continuation of the lower tax regime and the cut in payroll taxes is seen as another form of stimulus, incentivizing businesses to hire more workers and encouraging consumers to spend.

On Wednesday,

the Senate voted 81-19 in favor of the tax bill

. But the bill is expected to face a tougher challenge in the House, as House Democrats remain strongly opposed to components of the bill, chiefly provisions related to estate tax.

Doug Roberts, chief investment strategist for Channel Capital Research, however, says passage of the Senate bill was really the key. "The House is almost irrelevant," Roberts told


. "If the Democrats do not pass it this year, a new Republican majority will pass it when the new Congress convenes next year. It is more a question of timing. The outcome is fairly certain. The Senate, which remains under Democratic control in the new Congress, was the real uncertainty."

Initial weekly claims have remained below 450,000 for the last six weeks, an encouraging sign that layoffs are on the decline. The four-week moving average continues to edge lower as well.

Still, constant fluctuations in the jobs data and a stubbornly high unemployment rate have done little to assuage concerns on unemployment. The Labor Department said earlier this month that the economy added only 39,000 jobs in November and that unemployment rate climbed to 9.8%.

High unemployment rates is among the biggest concerns for the

Federal Reserve

. On Tuesday,

the Fed said that it will continue its $600 billion bond purchase program

as the economy was not recovering at a fast enough pace to make a dent on unemployment.

-- Written by Shanthi Bharatwaj in New York

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