House Passes Short-Term Spending Bill, Punting Again on a Deal

WASHINGTON — The House on Tuesday approved legislation to keep the government funded through mid-March, temporarily averting a shutdown as lawmakers struggle to reach a longer-term agreement on spending for federal agencies and departments for the remainder of the year.

With funding set to lapse on Feb. 18, the decision to pass a three-week extension was an admission that private negotiations between Republicans and Democrats have so far failed to bridge disagreements over how to allocate billions of dollars in federal spending.

Under the bill passed on Tuesday, by a vote of 272 to 162, the new deadline for a deal is March 11.

The measure now heads to the Senate, which is expected to pass it before the Feb. 18 deadline.

“I have every expectation that we can finalize a framework in short order, and then work together to fill in the details and enact an omnibus,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut and the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee. “The American people deserve the certainty that comes with full-year funding bills.”

Keeping the government fully funded is among the most basic of congressional responsibilities, with a dozen bills required to finance agencies and departments for an entire fiscal year. But four months after the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year, a deal has been elusive, though senior lawmakers said a deal remained within reach.

Democrats, in control of both congressional chambers and the White House, have been eager to carry out their own funding priorities. But in order for the measure to clear the evenly divided Senate, where 60 votes are needed to pass most legislation, Republican support is still needed.

The main sticking point has been over how to prioritize the money, with Democrats eager to provide generous funding for domestic and social programs, and Republicans insisting on keeping the level of military spending equal to those policies. Without a deal on overall spending levels, lawmakers and staff members cannot begin ironing out the details of the legislation.

Efforts to negotiate a compromise have been further complicated by the potential resurrection of President Biden’s marquee climate, tax and social policy bill, to which Republicans are unanimously opposed, and the possibility that the administration may request more emergency aid to address the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr. Biden has yet to make a formal request for additional pandemic relief, but lawmakers have discussed the possibility that he will do so.

Republicans have also pushed Democrats to agree to maintaining longtime policy restrictions in the bill, such as the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for most abortions. Democrats have sought to remove that provision, but doing so is all but guaranteed to sap Republican support needed to enact the bill.

“We live in a world that is too dangerous for Democrats to go hog wild on domestic programs and welfare,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader. He added that “in a 50-50 Senate, we’ll obviously need to honor the bipartisan status quo” in maintaining the policy restrictions.

Lawmakers and their aides have exchanged a series of offers and counteroffers in recent days, conferring in phone calls and huddling in the private hideaway of Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, on the second floor of theCapitol.

“We’re playing tennis,” said Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the panel. “Volleyball, volleyball.”

For Mr. Shelby and Mr. Leahy, longtime friends who are both set to retire after years of hard-fought negotiations, the legislation offers a final opportunity to strike an accord before the November elections and deliver federal money to their respective states. And with the possible return of earmarks, which Democrats have rebranded as “community project funding,” it could be the first time in over a decade that rank-and-file lawmakers have the chance to direct money to individual projects in their states.

But some lawmakers and aides have warned that without substantial progress toward a deal, lawmakers may be forced to hammer out yet another temporary funding bill to last for the remainder of the fiscal year, with no opportunity to change how money is allocated or where it is spent.

Agency heads and outside groups—particularly military leaders eyeing Russian aggression in Europe—have warned that yet another short-term bill could harm the government’s ability to function and quickly adapt to policy changes. The measure approved on Tuesday is the third stopgap bill to keep the government funded under the Biden administration, and it maintains spending levels first agreed to under a divided government in 2020.

The eight-page bill, in addition to warning a shutdown, would also direct $350 million to the Defense Department to address water contamination caused by fuel leaking from the Red Hill shaft, a well run by the Pentagon on Oahu, Hawaii.

“It’s a down payment, but it’s the first time Congress has expressed its will,” said Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, adding that it was in part devised to ensure that the government complies with a state emergency order to remove the fuel from the fuel storage facility.

Of those funds, $100 million will go toward removing fuel and $250 million will go toward military efforts to help those affected and address the contamination, which has affected a system that provides water to thousands of families, as well as schools and day care centers.