By David Lawder
WASHINGTON, Jan 15 (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a $1.1 trillion spending bill on Wednesday that quashes the threat of a government shutdown through Sept. 30 and offers lawmakers a chance to end four years of chaotic, crisis-driven budgeting.
The 359-67 vote, reflecting strong bipartisan support in the Republican-controlled chamber, sends the measure to the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate for approval by Saturday.
The Senate gave itself three more days to consider the measure by approving an extension of current funding that was due to expire at midnight on Wednesday.
The massive “omnibus” spending bill, which funds programs from missile systems to Amtrak rail services, passed with strong majorities of both House Republicans and Democrats. It boosts fiscal 2014 spending on military and domestic discretionary programs by $45 billion over levels that had been scheduled under automatic, “sequester” spending cuts.
The measure fleshes out a budget deal passed in December that also set spending levels for fiscal 2015, eliminating a key source of congressional gridlock for the year ahead. Many lawmakers say this will allow them to pass normal spending bills for the first time since 2009, President Barack Obama’s first year in office.
“This is a critical step in the direction of regular order,” Democratic Representative Marcy Kaptur of Ohio said of the spending bill.
For the past four years, Congress has funded government agencies through a series of stopgap spending bills and funding extensions, with numerous threats of shutdowns and U.S. Treasury debt defaults along the way.
The budget fights, fueled by demands for deficit reduction from the Republicans who seized control of the House in 2010 elections, reached a crescendo in October, when disputes over funding of “Obamacare” health insurance reforms prompted a 16-day shutdown for many agencies, idling thousands of federal workers.
With public approval ratings plummeting and midterm elections looming in November, Congress has since shown little stomach for further brinkmanship, allowing budget negotiators to craft bipartisan compromises.
But it is far from certain whether those compromises will continue. By March or April, Congress will need to approve another federal debt limit increase, a move that has recently been used by Republicans as a pressure point for more spending cuts.
And lawmakers who did not get the cuts or funding increases they wanted in the omnibus spending bill will be back almost immediately to fight for their priorities as the fiscal 2015 appropriations process gets under way.
Representative Nita Lowey, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said the process will give Democrats a more time to “plus-up” some programs they believe are still underfunded, such as the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency.
“I‘m going to try and adjust the bills to make sure we’re addressing the real needs out there,” the New York lawmaker told Reuters in an interview.
Meanwhile, some Republican lawmakers have said they would seek to eliminate some programs they regard as ineffective in order to find money to fund military priorities they regard as critical.
With non-war, discretionary funding largely unchanged between fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2015, making those changes will likely prove contentious.