UPDATE 1-Bill to restore jobless aid clears Senate hurdle

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WASHINGTON, April 12 (Reuters) - A measure to restore jobless benefits for hundreds of thousands of Americans cleared a procedural hurdle in the U.S. Senate on Monday as lawmakers returned to work after a two-week break.

By a vote of 60-34, the Democratic-controlled Senate voted to begin debate on a measure to extend jobless benefits for another month, which had lapsed amid partisan bickering. A final vote is expected later in the week.

With the unemployment rate at 9.7 percent, some 6.1 million Americans rely on jobless benefits to help them pay the bills as they look for work.

Those benefits expired for more than 200,000 Americans last week after Republican Senator Tom Coburn prevented a vote shortly before Congress left town.

Coburn and other Republicans argued that Congress should find a way to pay for the program rather than letting it add to a budget deficit projected to hit a record $1.5 trillion this fiscal year.

Democrats said the program qualified as emergency spending amid the worst recession in 70 years, and thus did not need to be offset by tax increases or spending cuts elsewhere.

Four Republicans joined 56 Democrats to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to take up legislation in the Senate.

Jobless benefits normally expire after six months but Congress has extended the program several times during a slump marked by unusually high levels of long-term joblessness.

More than 40 percent of the unemployed have been out of work longer than six months, according to the Labor Department.

Congress has been extending the program on a month-by-month basis while Democrats in the House and Senate negotiate an extension through the end of the year.

COBRA healthcare subsidies for the unemployed and a federal flood-insurance program also have been disrupted. Doctors who treat patients under the Medicare health insurance program for the elderly and disabled also could see their pay slashed.

Democratic leaders promise those programs will be reinstated retroactively. (Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Peter Cooney)