First-time claims for jobless benefits were essentially unchanged in the latest week, cementing a recent downward trend that remains too modest to bring down unemployment.

Initial claims dipped slightly to 420,000 in the week ended December 11, matching the median forecast in a Reuters poll of economists, from a revised 423,000 in the prior week.

However, continuing claims, which exclude the millions of Americans relying on extended benefits, rose to 4.14 million in the week ended December 4. That was far higher than the reading of 4.07 million analysts had expected, and the prior week's figure was also revised up considerably.

The total number of Americans claiming benefits, including those relying on a federal emergency program of extended benefits that has been the subject of heated political debate in Washington, rose by nearly 900,000 to 9.2 million on a non-seasonally adjusted basis in the week to November 27.

The further extension of the emergency benefit program is part of a deal struck between President Barack Obama and Republicans in Congress.

(Reporting by Pedro Nicolaci da Costa; Editing by Theodore d'Afflisio)