A White House-backed bill to renew jobless benefits for 1.3 million Americans narrowly cleared a U.S. Senate Republican procedural roadblock on Tuesday.
On a largely party-line vote of 60-37 - 60 were needed to prevail - the Democratic-led Senate agreed to begin consideration of the measure.
The Senate might vote later this week on whether to approve the bill and send it to the Republican-led House of Representatives where it faces stiff opposition.
Many Republicans vow to oppose the bill unless an agreement is reached to cover the $6 billion cost of extending benefits for three months without increasing the record federal debt.
President Barack Obama, who wants the benefits extended with no strings attached, plans to hold an event at the White House later in the day with some of the long-term unemployed in an effort to build support for the bill.
The action kicks off what is certain to be an election-year battle over the growing gap between rich and poor.
Obama has made it clear that he intends to make combating 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.
Leading Republicans intend to push back with competing plans to curb poverty this year, the 50th anniversary of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty."