Washington, Jan 08 (Agencies): The US economy may finally be hitting its stride even if growth remains too weak to put a real dent in the nation's jobless rate, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said on Friday.

Offering no real clues on the future direction of monetary policy, Bernanke sounded cautiously more upbeat than he had in his most recent public remarks. He cited improvements in consumer spendingand a drop in jobless benefit claims as hopeful signs a languid recovery was perking up.

"We have seen increased evidence that a self-sustaining recovery in consumer and business spending may be taking hold," the central bank chief said in his first testimony to Congress since the Fed launched a controversial plan to buy an extra $600 billion in government bonds.

Bernanke, who said it would take four to five years for the labor market to get back to normal, showed no inclination toward cutting short the Fed's bond purchase program, designed to stimulate the economy. But he also offered no hints of further buying beyond the program's June deadline.

"The Fed will not rush for the exit," said Lena Komileva, economist at Tullett Prebon. "The potential for further (easing) remains if weak labor and housing activity continue to depress inflation trends."

DEFLATION RISK SMALLER, NOT GONE

In his testimony to the Senate Budget Committee, Bernanke defended the Fed's bond purchases by highlighting the weakness in employment and what he saw as the risks associated with very low rates of inflation.

"Persistently high unemployment, by damping household income and confidence, could threaten the strength and sustainability of the recovery," Bernanke said.

"Very low inflation increases the risk that new adverse shocks could push the economy into deflation.

Deflation induced by economic slack can lead to extended periods of poor economic performance."

"Fiscal policy makers will need to continue to take into account the low level of economic activity and the still-fragile nature of the economic recovery," he said.

At the same time, Bernanke came down hard on what he described as an unsustainable long-term fiscal path.