By Rachelle Younglai
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Top lawmakers are aiming to forge a deal to keep the government operating beyond next week, even as Republican measures to restrict funding for abortions and the Obama administration's health care act threaten to derail it.
If Congress fails to iron out differences before December 16, lawmakers will be forced to pass another temporary spending measure or risk a government shutdown and the wrath of voters increasingly disenchanted with Washington.
"We cannot allow the government to remain on autopilot for another fiscal year," said Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye, who helps oversee spending as the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Inouye was speaking on Thursday to a committee of lawmakers in charge of hashing out the deal.
Congress managed to pass bills to fund housing, agriculture, transportation and justice departments for the fiscal year ending October 1, 2012. But it still needs to figure out how to fund other crucial government functions such as homeland security, labor, foreign affairs and health.
Disagreements over government spending and how to slash the country's growing budget deficits have already brought the government close to a shutdown in April and debt default in August.
But Inouye, his counterpart in the House and the top two Republicans who oversee spending in both congressional chambers expressed a willingness to compromise.
"We cannot save any money by operating under a continuing resolution" (temporary funding measure), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Thad Cochran, told the conference committee. "We need to identify the priorities and fund them in a thoughtful and careful way. I think we are ready to do that," he said.
Republicans have attached dozens of policy restrictions, or so-called "riders" to the spending bills that are strongly opposed by the Obama administration.
One provision would restrict funding for Planned Parenthood unless the family planning organization certified that it would not perform abortions or provide funds to an entity that performs abortions. Others would restrict funding for the Obama administration's health care law, the Affordable Care Act.
Norm Dicks, the top Democrat on the House appropriations committee warned: "If there are too many contentious riders we are going to have a problem with House Democrats on passing these bills so we have to have a reasonable outcome."
Although Republicans control the House of Representatives, many fiscally-conservative Republicans have not followed their leaders, giving Democrats some leverage in the lower chamber.
One hundred and one House Republicans voted against the most recent spending measure that has allowed the government to stay in business until next Friday.
As part of this summer's deal to raise the country's debt limit, lawmakers agreed to a spending cap of $1.043 trillion for the current fiscal year.
As per congressional rules, lawmakers must publish the bill by Monday in order to meet the December 16 deadline.
(Editing By Cynthia Osterman)