By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives began debate on Friday on short-term legislation to avert a government shutdown at midnight and buy some time on reaching a deal on federal spending through Sept. 30.
If the measure passes the House, as expected, the Senate would be prepared to take up the bill immediately in the hopes of approving and sending it to President Donald Trump to sign into law.
The bill under consideration in the Republican-led Congress would provide federal funding until May 5, allowing lawmakers to hammer out legislation over the next few days to keep the government funded for the rest of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
Congress has been tied in knots over $1 trillion in spending priorities for months. Lawmakers were supposed to have taken care of the current fiscal year appropriations bills by last Oct. 1.
Lawmakers' frustration at their inability to take care of the basic functions of government in a timely manner was on display on the House floor as debate opened.
"Let's make sure these basics are done for the American people and then let's get about the important business of changing their tax code and making sure they have the best healthcare in the world," said Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma.
In addition to opposition from Democrats, there are deep divisions among Republicans over exactly how to change the tax code and overhaul the U.S. healthcare system.
The action on the spending bill comes a day after House Republican leaders again put on hold a possible vote on major healthcare legislation sought by Trump to dismantle the 2010 Affordable Care Act, dubbed Obamacare, after moderates in the party balked at provisions added to entice hardline conservatives.
The government was last forced to close in October 2013, when Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and some of the most conservative House Republicans engineered a 17-day shutdown in an unsuccessful quest to kill former Democratic President Barack Obama's healthcare law.
RUN OUT OF MONEY
Trump, a Republican, bowed to Democratic demands that the spending bill not include money to start building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border he said is needed to fight illegal immigration and stop drug smugglers.
The Trump administration also agreed to continue funding for a major component of Obamacare despite Republican vows to end the program.
Without the extension or a longer-term funding bill, federal agencies will run out of money by midnight Friday, likely triggering abrupt layoffs of hundreds of thousands of federal government workers until funding resumes.
A federal closure would shutter National Park Service destinations like the Statue of Liberty, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. Government medical research would be suspended.
Thousands of federal workers would be furloughed with thousands more working without pay until the shutdown ends, including homeland security personnel. Some veterans benefits could be suspended.
In the bigger spending bill to be negotiated in the coming days, it remained unclear whether Republicans would prevail in their effort to sharply boost defense spending without similar increases for other domestic programs. Trump has proposed a $30 billion spending hike for the Pentagon for the rest of this fiscal year.
House and Senate negotiators also have been struggling over funding to make a healthcare program for coal miners permanent and whether to plug a gap in Puerto Rico's Medicaid program, the government health insurance program for the poor.
(Additional reporting by Amanda Becker and Susan Cornwell; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)