Congressional lawmakers are beginning to discuss a long-term spending package that could fund the government, prevent a shutdown and potentially even deliver another round of coronavirus relief, including an emerging Democrat-backed plan to provide paid leave to millions of Americans.

The early talks, including a bipartisan gathering Thursday focused on future federal spending levels, have increased in pace and intensity as Democrats and Republicans race to reach a deal before the current agreement is set to expire on February 18. A failure to find compromise by that date would bring federal agencies to a halt.

Both parties have expressed optimism in recent days that they can avert a dramatic, high-stakes fiscal showdown, especially after partisan divisions nearly shuttered Washington twice in the past six months. Lawmakers have explored ways to replace an existing stopgap with a measure that funds the government through the remainder of the 2022 fiscal year, which concludes at the end of September.

But challenges abound on Capitol Hill, including a long-simmering dispute between Democrats and Republicans over how much to devote to President Biden’s domestic priorities, including climate change — all while satisfying the GOP’s desire for more defense spending. Others see a potential funding deal as a natural legislative vehicle to advance perhaps billions of dollars in additional coronavirus-related aid, though Republican lawmakers aren’t entirely sold on the idea.

The early talks about pandemic relief have explored ways to boost testing, expand the availability of vaccines, invest in therapeutics and shore up any small businesses that still need financial help. Some Democrats also hope to provide fresh relief to families, including those who have missed out on work — and paychecks — as a result of the fast-spreading omicron variant.

Coronavirus cases spiked globally in the first weeks of 2022, despite record-high vaccination rates. Here’s how the omicron variant took off. (Jackie Lay, John Farrell/The Washington Post)

One proposal in the works from Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), the leader of the House Education and Labor Committee, aims to revive a federal program that requires employers to provide weeks of paid leave to workers affected by the coronavirus. The details have not been finalized, according to a House Democratic aide, who described the nascent effort on the condition of anonymity. But it would be modeled after a bipartisan stimulus program adopted in March 2020, which granted employers a tax credit in exchange for offering paid leave to their employees.

Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), the chair of the spending-focused House Appropriations Committee and a longtime advocate of leave programs, offered early support for the idea. “I applaud Chairman Scott’s leadership on this important issue and look forward to working with him to enact this provision,” she said in a statement.

The exact shape of any additional coronavirus aid is still unresolved, a reflection of the lingering uncertainty about how much money actually remains among the roughly $6 trillion that Congress has approved since the start of the pandemic. One Democratic aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the party’s deliberations, said they have not received a clear indication as to how much money is still available in areas including testing. GOP lawmakers share the concern, as some in the party expressed a reticence to approve new spending before exhausting what has already been authorized.

For now, though, the talks this week have left some on Capitol Hill newly hopeful that they can resolve the wider array of funding questions without coming down to the wire.

“We’re meeting, and we’re going to continue to work,” said DeLauro as she exited a meeting with her Republican peers in both chambers on Thursday.

The congresswoman offered few specifics about the state of the discussions. Asked if lawmakers could reach a fuller deal, known as an omnibus, before the February 18 deadline, she replied: “That’s my goal!”

The spending debates count among a lengthy list of critical battles facing Congress in the opening months of the new year. In the Senate, Democrats this week are forging ahead with long-stalled — and potentially ill-fated — plans to try to reform the nation’s voting laws. Another Democratic priority, advancing a roughly $2 trillion bill known as the Build Back Better Act, similarly remains mired in intraparty disputes.

The fate of government funding represents the most timely challenge, as lawmakers have roughly five weeks until they reach the key fiscal deadline. Entering the latest debate, some of the political fault lines between Democrats and Republicans are no different now than they were last spring, when Biden first offered his roughly $6 trillion budget blueprint for the 2022 fiscal year.

The president’s plan at the time called for massive increases in federal spending targeting education, public health, affordable housing, climate change and Internet access, and the agencies that oversee those policy areas. The proposal complemented Biden’s two-part economic agenda — a plan to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure, which Congress adopted, and a series of longer-term fixes to the country’s social safety net, which remains stalled in the Senate.

Despite months of work to turn the president’s 2022 plan into a series of appropriations bills in the House, Democrats failed to follow suit in the Senate, where they lack the 60 votes they need to enact Biden’s vision over GOP objections. Instead, lawmakers had to settle on a series of short-term fixes, known as continuing resolutions, which essentially froze in place the spending levels and other policies enacted under former president Donald Trump.

As discussions resumed, Democrats insisted they weren’t willing to make a deal until Republicans submitted a full counter offer, showing how much they would be willing to spend at each federal agency. Republicans, meanwhile, said they first wanted Democrats to remove what they view as “poison pills” — proposals that the GOP cannot accept under any circumstances.

The list of nonstarters among Republicans is vast, including some of Democrats’ most prized priorities. The top GOP appropriator, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), sketched out the objections in a public statement last fall — blasting Democrats for proposing too much on domestic programs and too little on defense. Liberal-leaning Democrats had been most vocal in arguing under Biden that the federal government should shift more money toward areas such as education, which were capped under a controversial deficit-reduction law for a decade.

Shelby’s list also took aim at a number of Democrats’ proposals on immigration and climate change. He faulted the president’s attempts to amp up funding at the Internal Revenue Service, even though the agency in recent days has warned it cannot keep pace with tax filings this year. And the GOP senator spoke at the time on behalf of Republicans in refusing to scrap the Hyde Amendment, which Democrats have tried to undo because it blocks federal funding for abortion services.

Speaking to reporters earlier this week, Shelby acknowledged lawmakers are “not there yet” on the sort of deal that has eluded them for nearly a year. Exiting the Thursday gathering, though, his office sounded a more optimistic tone — echoing his Democratic counterparts’ optimism that they could still strike a compromise.

“We look forward to further conversations in the coming days, with the shared goal of finishing our work by the February 18 government funding deadline,” added DeLauro and her Senate counterpart, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), in their own joint statement.

Adding to the flash points are renewed talks about additional coronavirus aid. Addressing the topic at his weekly news conference, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said he expected “substantial sums to be requested to deal with and confront and try to contend with the coronavirus that has afflicted us now for almost two years.”

The White House has maintained publicly it has all the money it needs to address the pandemic and safeguard the country’s economic recovery, pointing to the passage of the roughly $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan last spring. That includes billions in unspent assistance set aside for hospitals and other public health providers, for example, and sizable sums allocated to cities and states to use as they see fit.

Privately, though, the Biden administration has also been working on a proposal that could commit further aid toward boosting hospitals, manufacturing more rapid tests and distributing inoculations, sources previously told The Washington Post.

For some Democrats, the chief concern is global vaccine distribution. More than 80 party lawmakers signed on to a letter in December calling for at least $17 billion to help other countries access the two-shot regimen, which could help reduce the emergence of new variants. Some of the Democrats, including Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), had previously unveiled a bill that requested $34 billion to that end.

But Republicans have grown critical about the renewed calls for coronavirus aid, questioning whether such spending is necessary. Last week, for example, GOP Sens. Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Richard Burr (N.C.) called on the Biden administration to detail how it spent roughly $82 billion in money set aside for testing, given the fact Americans continue to struggle to obtain access to diagnostic tools as omicron sweeps the nation.

Jeff Stein contributed to this story.