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Stopgap funding bill nears final passage in U.S. Congress

(Recasts with House action on funding bill)

WASHINGTON, Sept 30 (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress, racing against a midnight deadline, on Wednesday advanced legislation that would avert looming government shutdowns by funding federal agencies until Dec. 11.

The House of Representatives, which for weeks was held up by conservatives' demands to withdraw all federal funds for women's healthcare provider Planned Parenthood, moved the bill toward final passage when it approved rules for debating the measure.

While it would maintain Planned Parenthood's funding, the House is also poised to pass separate legislation defunding Planned Parenthood in a bow to conservative demands. But that measure is not expected to advance in the Senate.

Earlier in the day, by a vote of 78-20, the Senate approved the legislation that was needed to keep the government running at current levels with the start of the new fiscal year on Thursday.

House conservatives, cheered on by some Senate conservatives, had insisted that Planned Parenthood be punished for allegedly improperly selling fetal tissue harvested from abortions. The organization has denied the allegations.

The funding bill, known as a continuing resolution, or CR, aims to give congressional negotiators and President Barack Obama about 10 weeks to work out a longer-term budget deal that lasts at least through the new fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2016.

"This CR, while not ideal, is the next step towards that end, keeping the government's lights on as we work to find a solution," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers said in House debate.

"With current funding set to expire in just hours from now, I urge my colleagues to do the responsible and reasonable thing and support this continuing resolution today," Rogers said.

(Reporting by David Lawder and Richard Cowan; Editing by Susan Heavey and Nick Zieminski)