The ranks of the nation's unemployed grew by another 263,000 people last month and the jobless rate climbed above the 6 percent mark, as the deepening recession continued to claim new casualties.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said unemployment rose to 6.1 percent in December from 5.9 percent the previous month. Separate reports of a drop in orders for manufactured goods and planned auto-industry layoffs, also announced yesterday, pointed to more increases in unemployment.

Since June, more than a million workers have become unemployed, bringing the number of jobless to 7.6 million in December. In the last three months of the year, employers did away with more than 500,000 jobs, the greatest three-month shrinkage of payrolls since the 1981-1982 recession.

The picture painted by the numbers was of a recession spreading into most regions of the country. In California, for example, the unemployment rate rose to 7.1 percent from 6.5 percent the month before and 5.3 percent a year ago. There also were job losses in almost all sectors of the economy: construction, services and manufacturing.

The economy has been suffering a steady erosion in manufacturing jobs for some time but there has been unevenness in the service sector, which has been in decline in the Northeast but prospering in some other regions. Now, all appear to be moving downward across much of the country.

In its survey of employers, which is separate from the unemployment data, the bureau found that the number of jobs lost, 76,000, was smaller than the losses in the previous two months. The figures persuaded some economists that the recession may not be as long-lasting as they had thought it might be earlier. Prices on the bond markets, which rise when times are bad, fell sharply yesterday and interest rates rose. Stock markets were down slightly.

There was little disagreement, however, that the recession is touching almost all parts of the country and the economy.

"The impact of higher unemployment has been remarkably even. Virtually every major demographic group -- whether defined by age, gender or race -- has seen a rise in joblessness in the June-December period," said Janet Norwood, commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Later, she added: "The employment weakness was broad-based, affecting most sectors of the economy."

Kurt Karl, a senior economist with the WEFA Group, a Pennsylvania forecasting firm, said: "This to us is a signal there is a genuine recession underway. It is not as deep as we thought earlier but is a good bit broader."

Asked about the jobs report, President Bush said: "Most people that have looked at the economy feel that the recession, should it be proved technically that this country is in recession, will be shallow. It will not be a deep recession."

The private group of economists that certifies the beginning and end points of national recessions has not yet spoken definitively on whether the economy now is in one. However, a variety of economic indicators and anecdotal evidence has led government and private economists to believe the economy is shrinking.

Yesterday, the Commerce Department reported that orders for goods made in factories fell a record 5.9 percent in November, to $235.4 billion. They were led by a drop in orders for big-ticket items such as aircraft and appliances.

Since the beginning of November, many of the nation's largest corporations have laid off employees. The statistics released yesterday by the government reflect the accumulation of these decisions by companies across the nation.

In December, for example, Citicorp announced that it would eliminate 8,000 jobs and Trans World Airlines Inc. said it would fire 400 employees. In November, the Big Three automakers -- General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. -- announced production cutbacks. They idled plants across the country, laying off, at least temporarily, about 40,000 workers.

Yesterday, the automakers said they would continue and enlarge those cutbacks, idling 62,000 workers in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts-based Digital Equipment Corp. has been in the process of eliminating up to 6,000 jobs. Various firms on Wall Street have continued to pare back, adding to white-collar unemployment. Although 45,000 financial-service industry jobs have been eliminated since 1987, industry experts expect another 40,000 jobs could be cut over the next two years.

Nor is the picture expected to improve quickly.

Earlier this week, major banks responded to signals from the Federal Reserve, which is concerned about the sinking economy, and reduced their prime interest rates to 9.5 percent from 10 percent. However, experts were skeptical that lower interest rates would be enough to induce consumers worried about the Persian Gulf situation and their own economic future to step up their spending.

"It takes a lot of {monetary} easing to get people to buy houses and cars again," said Washington forecaster Joel Popkin. "First they have to have the jobs and the money. Interest rates won't do that alone."

The bureau report said the number of jobless persons who are not seeking work because they do not believe they can find it rose by 110,000 in the fourth quarter of 1990 to 940,000. Discouraged workers are not counted as officially unemployed.

The bureau also said that the number of people working part time because they cannot find full-time work increased by 150,000 to 5.6 million.

Staff writer Steven Mufson contributed to this report.