President Barack Obama and Democrats have urged approval of the one-time payment, saying seniors barely getting by on their Social Security checks face undue hardships without the COLA increase.
But Republicans contended that the nation couldn't afford the estimated $14 billion cost of the payment, and that the COLA freezes in 2010 and 2011 come after seniors received a significant boost in 2009.
The measure was brought up under a fast-track procedure that required a two-thirds majority for passage. The 254-153 vote in favor of the bill fell short of that.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the financial aid was critical to seniors facing rising costs and falling home values and was fiscally responsible. "But unfortunately, congressional Republicans overwhelmingly chose to oppose it." Twenty-six Republicans voted for the bill, while 141 opposed it. Democrats were in favor, 228-12.
COLAs are set automatically each year by an inflation measure that was adopted by Congress in 1975. More than 58 million retirees, disabled people and surviving family members receive Social Security or Supplemental Security Income checks. The average monthly check is $1,072.
The increase for 2009 was 5.8 percent, the largest in 27 years. It was triggered by a sharp but short-lived spike in gas prices to above $4 a gallon in the summer of 2008. By law, the next increase in benefits won't come until consumer prices as a whole rise above what they were that summer.
Democrats and advocacy groups say the formula does not accurately reflect the living costs of seniors, who pay more for such commodities as health care and drugs.
"Basically, they have their benefit levels flatlined at a time when they're encountering higher costs, reducing their quality of life experience and disappointing them greatly about Social Security," said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., a member of the Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee.
Rep. Sam Johnson of Texas, the top Republican on that subcommittee, acknowledged that disappointment but noted the big increase seniors received in 2009 and the fact that a COLA increase means there will be no rise in Medicare Part B costs for doctors' visits. "Increasing our nation's crushing deficit on the backs of our children by an additional $14 billion is wrong," he said.
The Senate was also scheduled to vote later Wednesday on legislation with the $250 payment, but there too Republican opposition dimmed prospects for advancing the bill.
The House did approve, by voice vote, a Senate-passed bill aimed at stopping Social Security number fraud by barring federal, state and local governments from displaying those numbers on paper checks.
The bill also bans federal, state and local governments from using prisoners in any capacity that would give them access to Social Security numbers. The nation's Medicare agency has been criticized for issuing insurance cards that include beneficiaries' full Social Security numbers.