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Congress clears legislation to avert a shutdown

Updated to reflect House vote

Congress on Wednesday approved a short-term spending bill that will prevent a government shutdown and fund federal agencies through mid-December.

Lawmakers didn’t give themselves much time to spare with funding for the government set to run out at midnight. Attention now turns to December when House Republicans will have a new slate of leaders who are being urged by conservatives to take a more aggressive approach with President Obama over issues such as government spending and abortion, raising the possibility there will be another tense standoff that could lead to a shutdown.

The Senate passed the stop-gap funding bill earlier in the day on 78 to 20 vote and the House cleared it later in the afternoon on a 277 to 151 vote. Obama is expected to sign the legislation into law.

The bill would extend current spending levels through Dec. 11 and does not include language to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood, despite pressure from conservatives who have been heavily critical of the group after the recent release of videos by an anti-abortion group alleging it illegally sold fetus tissues for profit. Planned Parenthood strongly denies the charge and the debate over the issue shows no signs of going away.

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Negotiations on a full-year appropriations package are expected to soon begin, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) pushing for a deal to set government spending levels for the next two fiscal years to avoid another messy funding fight next year ahead of the 2016 presidential and congressional elections.

“We’d like to settle the topline for both years so that next year we can have the regular appropriations process,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday.

[The words you need to know during the shutdown debate, defined]

Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), have signaled they are open to negotiating spending targets for the next two years and they are pushing to wrap up the work quickly.

Many Democrats have said that they would like to negotiate with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) before he steps down at the end of October, worried that the leadership team elected after his departure will be far less willing to negotiate.

Boehner has said he would like to complete work on as many issues as possible before he leaves Congress and Democrats hope a larger deal on fiscal issues, which would also include increasing the debt limit, can be struck in the next few weeks.

What it looked like the last time the government shut down

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 07: Clouds fill the sky in front of the U.S. Capitol on October 7, 2013 in Washington, DC. Democrats and Republicans are still at a stalemate on funding for the federal government as the shut down goes into the seventh day. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“We have debt ceiling, we have Ex-Im bank which is already closed, we have, of course we’ve got to do something about funding the government after December 11th,” Reid said earlier this month. “It’s going to have to come very soon and I would hope that Boehner would make it easy on the people that are going to follow him and get it all done before he leaves.”

Wednesday’s House vote was an indication of how difficult the upcoming negotiations could be. The bill passed with the support of 186 Democrats and only 91 Republicans.

In addition, the vote on the funding bill was preceded by a vote to strip Planned Parenthood of funding with the measure passing on a 241 to 185 vote. While the resolution is not expected to advance in the Senate, it serves as a warning that the issue will continue to play a part in the funding debate this fall.

[Presidential candidate Ted Cruz can’t win in the Senate]

Perhaps most closely watched on Wednesday was how those currently running for leadership posts cast their vote on the spending bill. Some conservatives had said they wanted to see candidates vote to sink the legislation.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the favorite to replace Boehner, voted for the legislation while his lone announced challenger, Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.), voted no.

In the two man race for majority leader, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the current GOP whip, was a yes while Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) was a no.

Among the contenders for whip, Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) voted yes while Pete Sessions (R-Texas) and Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) voted no.

As part of a broader budget deal, Republicans have insisted that any funding increases will have to be offset by spending cuts. That means negotiators will have to decide both on a top-line spending level that Republicans can accept and the offsetting cuts or other offsets that won’t cause Democrats to balk.

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees will need about 30 days to finalize the details of any legislation once an agreement on a top-line number is reached, according to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“I challenge leadership to work with Speaker Boehner to enact a new topline budget deal by the end of October,” she said, “We can’t let October brinksmanship become a Christmas crisis.”