WASHINGTON — Congress gave final approval on Thursday to a bill to fund the government through March 11, averting a shutdown this week and giving lawmakers more time to cement a deal on spending for the remainder of the fiscal year.
Passage of the short-term measure in the Senate came less than 48 hours before government funding was sent to lapse, as lawmakers rushed to leave Washington for a weeklong recess. It passed 65 to 27, just over a week after the House approved it.
The legislation, which will keep the government funded through March 11, now heads to President Biden’s desk. He is expected to sign it.
Lawmakers and aides are gambling that the three-week extension will provide enough time to finalize a deal on the dozen bills needed to keep federal government agencies and departments funded for the rest of the fiscal year. Four months into the fiscal year, which began in October, lawmakers have yet to reach an agreement, instead relying on a series of stopgap bills that maintain funding levels set under the Trump administration.
“Our government is not meant to run on autopilot, and American taxpayer dollars should not be spent on outdated priorities,” Senator Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said on the Senate floor. “We have the responsibility to make the hard choices about how to invest in the American people.”
Negotiations on the omnibus package had been stymied largely by an impasse over how to divide the money, with Democrats pressing to prioritize social and domestic programs while they control both chambers of Congress and the White House. Republicans, who are needed to muster the 60 votes necessary to pass most legislation, pushed to keep military spending on equal financial footing with those programs.
But senior lawmakers in both parties and both chambers said last week that they had resolved those differences over an outline, without divulging any details. Lawmakers and aides familiar with the emerging deal signaled that it would increase both military spending and domestic and social programs. (In his speech, Mr. Leahy hailed what he said would be “the biggest increase in nondefense programs in four years,” but did not offer specifics.)
If they can nail down the details of the agreement, the catchall spending package would not only allow for spending increases, but unlock funding outlined in the bipartisan infrastructure law and, for the first time in more than a decade, fund earmarks that let individual lawmakers direct money to specific projects in their states.
“Agencies need certainty, the businesses that rely on government for contracts need certainty, and our men and women who are serving in the military need certainty,” said Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire.
It is also likely that many or all longtime policy provisions, like the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for most abortions, would be kept in some form in any such package. Republicans had also warned that those conditions — known as policy riders — would need to be maintained to ensure that enough of their party would back the legislation.
Because the spending package is one of the few remaining measures that must pass before the end of this Congress, rank-and-file lawmakers are likely to try to attach additional legislation, potentially upending a final deal.
“Once you start a vehicle moving, a lot of people want to ride on it,” said Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee.
Among the most obvious candidates is an emergency pandemic aid package, although the White House has not yet made a formal request. The Biden administration told key congressional officials on Tuesday that it could need as much as an additional $30 billion in coronavirus response funds, including to improve testing and vaccinations across the country.
Several Republicans have signaled a reluctance to support more pandemic spending after Democrats muscled through a $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package in March over their unanimous opposition. In an informal briefing with key congressional officials on Tuesday, Biden administration officials floated an additional $17.9 billion for vaccines and therapeutics, $4.9 billion for diagnostics and additional money to counter future variants, according to one official briefed on the details, who was not authorized to speak publicly and described the session on the condition of anonymity.
“They haven’t sent us a relief package yet,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, said on Tuesday. “But obviously, we’re going to have to do something.”
Still, the eight-page bill that passed on Thursday made no mention of more pandemic aid and had few additions beyond keeping the government open. One exception was a provision allocating new money to address water contamination caused by fuel leaking from the Red Hill shaft, a well run by the Pentagon on the Hawaii island of Oahu.
Before passing the temporary spending bill, lawmakers voted down a few amendments proposed by Republicans, including a measure that would have defunded vaccine mandates, including for federal employees, and another that would have denied federal funding to schools that require coronavirus vaccinations for students.
The final vote had been delayed by a number of policy disputes and senatorial absences, as Democratic leaders scrambled to ensure they had the votes to prevent the amendments from changing the bill and forcing the House to vote again on the measure.
Mr. Leahy, in particular, grew visibly frustrated on the floor by the delay, as he blocked an attempt by Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, to first swiftly pass legislation banning federal funding from going toward pipes for smoking crack cocaine and other drug paraphernalia. (Mr. Rubio denied he was trying to slow down passage of the stopgap bill, known as a continuing resolution.)
“Everybody has a right to make any kind of political point for any group they want, but let’s talk about being U.S. senators,” Mr. Leahy said, banging his fist on his lectern.
“Let’s not slow things down,” he added. “Let’s vote on the continuing resolution. Let’s show the United States of America and the rest of the world that we can stay open.”