By Thomas Ferraro and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A White House-backed bill to extend jobless benefits for 1.3 million Americans narrowly cleared a Republican procedural roadblock in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, the first volley in a new battle to combat poverty.
In a largely party-line vote of 60-37 - 60 were needed to prevail - the Democratic-led Senate agreed to begin consideration of the measure, which, at a cost of $6 billion, would extend recently ended jobless benefits for three months.
The Senate may vote later this week on whether to pass the bill and send it to the Republican-led House of Representatives, where it would likely die unless there is a deal to cover the cost without increasing the record federal debt.
At the White House, President Barack Obama praised the Senate for moving forward and urged swift passage by both chambers so he could sign the emergency legislation into law.
"We've got to get this across the finish line without obstruction or delay," said Obama, joined by some of the long-term unemployed, including Katherine Hackett of Moodus, Connecticut. She has two sons in the military and has had to turn down the heat in her home to make ends meet.
"When we've got the mom of two of our troops who's working hard out there but is having to wear a coat inside of the house, we've got a problem," Obama said.
House Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, noted that he told the White House a month ago that any renewal of jobless benefits "should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work."
"To date, the president has offered no such plan," Boehner said in a statement.
The Senate vote and exchange of words helped kick off a new struggle over the growing gap between rich and poor.
Obama intends to make curbing income inequality a hallmark of his second term by seeking to extend jobless benefits, increase the minimum wage, raise funding for education and revamp immigration laws.
His appeals have drawn fire from Republicans, who figure that he would seek to pay for these initiatives with tax hikes, primarily on the rich.
They say the best way to expand wealth is to produce more of it by creating jobs with lower taxes and fewer regulations.
Polls show that Americans view Republicans as less compassionate toward the poor and working class than Democrats.
Seeking to address this vulnerability, prominent Republicans such as Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, both potential White House contenders, plan to publicly discuss this week their ideas for fighting poverty.
In doing so, they will help mark the 50th anniversary of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty," which produced landmark legislation to upgrade healthcare and education and expand economic opportunities.
The Senate bill would extend the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which ended on December 28 when funding expired, stopping benefits for 1.3 million Americans.
Unless the program is renewed, an additional 2 million are expected to lose their benefits in the first six months of this year.
Signed into law in 2008 by Republican President George W. Bush, the program last year provided the jobless an average of $300 per week for an additional 28 weeks once state benefits ended.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell bashed Democrats for suddenly seeking an extension of the program, noting that "they ignored the issue all of last year" and are only making a concerted effort now that the federal aid has expired.
McConnell also suggested that the cost of extending the benefits be covered by cuts in Obama's signature healthcare program.
Reid called McConnell's proposal a "non-starter," saying it would further hurt the American people.
Reid, who controls what comes to the Senate floor, said he would be open to possible amendments to cover the cost of extending jobless benefits "if they (Republicans) come up with something that is serious."
McConnell fired back: "It is not his job to dictate to us ... if our amendments are appropriate."
The bill to extend the federal jobless program was offered by Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Republican Senator Dean Heller of Nevada.
Heller and five fellow Republicans joined 52 Democrats and two independents in voting to advance the bill. Backers may face another roadblock when they move to vote on passage.
Republican Senator Dan Coats of Indiana explained why he voted to begin consideration, saying, "It's one of those issues that goes directly to people that are hurting."
Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois said he voted no despite a phone call from Obama. Kirk said that he is concerned because the bill contains no offsets and could end up hurting the nation's and his state's credit ratings.
"It's not unusual for the president to call me to ask for liberal votes," Kirk said. "I remain a fiscal conservative and he knows that."
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Caren Bohan; Editing by Douglas Royalty)