A vote on the measure, set for Thursday, was postponed until at least next week after conservatives balked, demanding that any deal to fund the government include a provision to cut off funding for President Obama's signature health initiative.
Unless Congress acts, the government will shut down Sept. 30. The Treasury also faces a potential default as soon as Oct. 18, according to independent estimates. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said he wants to avoid both a shutdown and a default. But deep divisions within Republican ranks have left Boehner scrambling for a strategy that can win the support from the vast majority of his caucus.
Democrats are worried that the Republican-controlled House will be unable to act -- leaving Washington barreling toward a round of economy-rattling deadlines for the third straight year.
As Republican leaders struggled to build support for a plan backed by Boehner, some rank-and-file conservatives put forward their own proposal at a closed-door meeting of the conservative Republican Study Group.
Some floated the idea of giving Obama and Democrats an increase in the debt ceiling to avoid a default by the U.S. as well as more funding for government agencies, turning off some of the deep federal spending cuts known as the sequestration. Such an offer, they said, would have to be accompanied by an agreement to delay for one year the full implementation of Obamacare.
For now, GOP leaders are still pushing their original proposal that would fund the government at current levels through Dec. 15, while haggling with conservatives for a broader resolution. Boehner's measure also includes a resolution to defund the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare. But the legislation is structured to allow the Senate to vote that provision down and send the underlying bill to President Obama for his signature, which would avoid a government shutdown.
While several Republicans called the situation "fluid," some rank and file lawmakers made it clear on Wednesday that they would not accept Boehner's terms.
"Wouldn't it be ironic if the government shuts down because our leadership won't offer a bill that Republicans will vote for? That's what happened this week," said freshman Rep. Tom Massie, R-Ky., one of the leading agitators pushing to defund the health-care law even if it means shutting down the government.
Obama has so far rejected any attempts to negotiate over the health-care law.
"We will not accept anything that delays or defunds Obamacare," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday. "Harming the economy to refight old political battles, to refight a battle that was waged and ended when Congress passed the law, the president signed the law, ⅛and€ the Supreme Court upheld the law is not in the interest of the American middle class."
The gridlock among House Republicans came as the top four leaders of Congress plan to huddle Thursday morning to try to find a way forward on the pressing fiscal deadlines of the moment: Oct. 1, when funding expires for the federal government, and Oct. 18, when the Treasury will likely begin running out of measures to keep borrowing and begin the process that could lead to default on the nation's nearly $17 trillion debt.
A report by the Bipartisan Policy Center this week found that the Treasury may be able to stretch available funds into early November. But the longer such efforts continued, the more global financial markets would drift toward chaos, the center said.
On Tuesday Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., unveiled a plan to keep government agencies funded through Dec. 15, at an annualized rate of $986.3 billion that would leave in place the sequester budget caps.
The plan quickly unraveled as conservatives said it was insufficient - with a Tea-Party-aligned non-profit accusing Boehner of having "betrayed" the cause. Democrats also joined the fray.
"Republican leaders spent all week pledging to jam through a temporary funding measure that defunds the Affordable Care Act, wreaks havoc on Medicare, and extends the life of the Republican sequester. But division in their own ranks scuttled this latest gambit," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Wednesday.
In a recurring theme of Boehner's leadership, the opposition from Democrats left him fishing for votes entirely among the 233 Republicans in the House. But dozens quickly opposed the plan, leaving House leaders well shy of the majority needed to pass the bill.
Despite the criticism from their own ranks, senior Republicans - who have witnessed numerous implosions the past two years on everything from spending bills to tax measures to the farm bill - said that the situation has not reached those depths yet.
"It's not time to panic," House Appropriations Chairman Harold "Hal" Rogers, R-Ky., told reporters.
Cantor spent an hour Wednesday inside a meeting of the Republican Study Committee, the conservative caucus, listening to their ideas but not offering his own, lawmakers said.
Some came away from that luncheon optimistic, given that many conservatives said they might be willing to go along with the leadership's original proposal if they can craft a longer term plan on de-funding Obamacare through the fight over increasing the federal debt ceiling.
"The emotion has been creatively channeled," said Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., a conservative who represents the massive class of 2010 before leadership.
Several Republicans pointed to the mere suggestion among some conservatives that they might be open to higher spending in a compromise, as a sign that common ground could be found.
"Maybe this thing could work," said Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif., a senior RSC member.
That tactic was based around leveraging a delay in Obamacare, which they suggested would create its own set of savings that would more than offset increased funds for federal agencies. The president's top former political adviser, David Plouffe, compared continuing efforts to block the health law to "a fairy tale on par with those waiting for Unicorns."
White House officials said they also would not agree to Republican proposals that they offset an increase to defense spending with deeper cuts to other domestic programs. One factor working in the administration's favor: The 10-year sequester slices more deeply into defense spending than domestic agencies next year, raising concerns for some Republicans.
An opinion poll released Wednesday suggested that both Republicans and the White House are on weak ground in the upcoming budget fight. The CNN/ORC International poll said that a third of Americans would blame Obama for a government shutdown, versus 51 percent for the GOP.
But support for Obamacare is also dropping, the poll showed. The CNN/ORC survey found that 39 percent of Americans support most of Obamacare, sharply down from the 51 percent who supported most of Obamacare at the start of the year.
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