Initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 17,000 to a seasonally adjusted 361,000, the Labor Department said on Thursday. The prior week's figure was revised to show 1,000 more applications than previously reported.
Claims have now unwound the Superstorm Sandy surge. They rose as high as 451,000 in the aftermath of the late October storm, which struck the East Coast. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims rising to 357,000 last week.
The four-week moving average for new claims, a better measure of labor market trends, fell 13,750 to 367,750, the lowest since late October. The data covered the survey period for December nonfarm payrolls.
Job gains so far this year have averaged 151,000 per month, a pattern that is likely to hold through December amid fears the U.S. Congress and the Obama administration could fail to agree on a deal to prevent tighter fiscal policy next year.
About $600 billion in government spending cuts and higher taxes could be pulled out of the economy in early 2013, and tip it back into recession unless an agreement is reached on a less punitive plan to reduce budget deficits.
A Labor Department official said there were no special factors influencing week's claims data.
The claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid rose 12,000 to 3.23 million in the week ended December 8.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)