WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate adopted a temporary spending bill Dec. 21 that would keep the government funded at 2010 levels through March 4. The stopgap appropriation now goes to the U.S. House of Representatives for consideration before the current continuing resolution under which the government is operating expires at midnight.

The Senate bill, approved 79-16, was offered in the form of an amendment to H.R. 3082, a House-approved measure that would have funded the federal government for the remainder of fiscal year 2011 and which would have increased NASA spending by $186 million over 2010 levels.

Unlike the House bill, the Senate version of H.R. 3082 does not weigh-in on NASA, which means the agency would be forced to operate in the coming months at spending rates proportional to the $18.72 billion appropriated for all of 2010. In addition, NASA would be prohibited from initiating new programs and could be required to continue funding the Moon-bound Constellation program U.S. President Barack Obama sought to abandon in the $19 billion budget blueprint for 2011 that the White House sent lawmakers in February.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) sought to push a $1.1 trillion omnibus appropriation through the chamber last week that also would have provided a $186 million funding boost for NASA, but pulled the plug Dec. 16 in the face of mounting Republican opposition to earmarks contained in the measure. Congressional sources say the omnibus bill would have given the agency clear direction to move ahead with plans to build a heavy-lift rocket and multipurpose space capsule, fly an additional space shuttle mission to the international space station and nurture development of commercial rockets and spacecraft.

The lack of direction in the short-term continuing resolution could afford NASA some leeway in choosing how to apply funds to its programs. “The problem with doing it this way is that you leave broad discretion to the agency and basically give them a blank check,” one congressional source said of the short-term spending measure.