Unemployment claims fell last week, suggesting the battered labor market is recovering but only slowly, the Labor Department said on Thursday.

New applications for state jobless benefits dropped to 455,000 in the week ended May 22 from an upwardly revised 474,000 in the prior week. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims would fall to 455,000.

The U.S. job market has failed to bounce back convincingly despite three straight quarters of solid economic growth. Recently there has been some evidence of improvement, with employers adding to payrolls in five of the last six months.

Initial claims peaked above 650,000 in March 2009, and have decreased steadily since then. Over the last few months, new applications have plateaued.

The jobless rate has remained stubbornly high, however, registering 9.9 percent in April.

The weak employment outlook is the subject of intense political jostling in Washington. Jobless claims themselves have become a sticking point as Congress debates whether or not to extend eligibility amid persistent long-term joblessness.

The number of people still receiving benefits after an initial week of aid stood at 4.61 million as of May 15.

The four-week moving average of new claims, a more reliable measure of underlying trends, rose slightly to 456,500.

(Reporting by Pedro Nicolaci da Costa; Editing by Neil Stempleman)