The House voted 256 to 159 yesterday to approve a short-term funding resolution to keep government departments operating through Dec. 16 after Democrats put off a threatened attempt to impose restrictions on nonlethal aid to the Nicaraguan contra rebels.

With relations between House Democrats and Republicans tense, Democratic leaders were reluctant to pick a fight on contra aid that might jeopardize passage of an essential spending resolution.

The House Rules Committee voted Wednesday to allow consideration of an amendment requiring that the $3.2 million of additional contra aid contained in the funding resolution be distributed through an international agency, such as the Red Cross, instead of the Central Intelligence Agency.

That amendment, drafted by Rep. David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), would comply with terms of the five-nation Central American peace plan signed in Guatemala in August. But CIA airlifts of food, medicine, clothing and other supplies to Nicaraguan rebels camps have been a crucial aspect of U.S. aid to the contras, and Republicans have threatened an all-out floor fight to prevent restrictions on those activities.

Bonior, the chief deputy Democratic whip, said that while he had the votes to adopt the amendment, he was concerned that Republicans and liberal Democrats who oppose any aid to the contras might combine to defeat the short-term funding resolution.

He said Democrats would wait until next month, when the House takes up a long-term continuing spending resolution next, to press for further restrictions on contra aid. "We decided to make a full fight on the long-term resolution," he said.

House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) applauded Bonior for heeding Republican warnings against raising the contra aid issue now, amidst difficult deficit-reduction talks between Congress and the White House and Republican complaints about high-handed tactics by the Democratic leadership.

"That does not suggest there won't be some fireworks when the long-term continuing resolution comes up in December," Michel said. "But frankly, we don't need that kind of argument at this juncture."

However, Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.) criticized the Democrats for imposing a rule that prevented others from offering amendments to the short-term resolution, which incorporates more than $597 billion in new budget authority for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

"It takes away from the minority one more way we have of influencing legislation," Walker said. ". . . Power is becoming more important than individual rights."