WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Republican plan aimed at averting a government shutdown in less than three weeks ran into a wall of opposition on Wednesday from conservatives in the House of Representatives, and leaders delayed any votes on it until at least next week.
The plan, derided as a "trick" by some conservatives, would have let them cast an essentially symbolic vote to defund "Obamacare" healthcare reforms without risking a shutdown, feared by party leaders who remember the political damage they suffered when government offices shut their doors in the mid-1990s.
The move in the House is the latest indication a Republican right-wing revolt will complicate Congress' efforts to deal with looming fiscal deadlines over government spending and the debt limit.
The conflict is part of what is being called a "civil war" within the Republican Party, energized in part by anti-Obamacare rallies and Tea Party gatherings during the August recess and the organizing efforts of the conservative Heritage Action, a sister to the conservative Heritage Foundation.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor had previously scheduled a vote this week on a continuing resolution, or CR, to fund the government coupled with one to defund "Obamacare," President Barack Obama's signature healthcare reform law set to start up on October 1.
Conservatives want the two elements combined, making it harder for the Democratic-controlled Senate to ignore Obamacare as it moves to fund the government.
In a sign the plan was in trouble, a leadership notice sent to House Republicans on Wednesday afternoon told members not to expect a vote this week.
The delay comes as Congress is racing against a September 30 deadline to pass new funding legislation to avoid a government shutdown on October 1 as the new fiscal year gets started.
Many conservative Republicans have said Cantor's spending plan would result in a "trick" vote that would fail to meet their goal of withholding funds to implement key parts of the healthcare reform law. Instead, they say the plan would ultimately allow for passage of a stop-gap spending bill, healthcare money and all.
"The Cantor CR plan appears to be in jeopardy assuming no Democrats would vote for it," said an aide to a House Republican member opposed to the plan. "There is strong opposition from conservatives and even members who might typically support leadership."
A House leadership aide said more time was needed to explain the plan to members and answer their questions, adding, "We are talking to people right now."
It would take only 16 Republicans to defect from the party's 233-member majority to sink the Cantor plan. Some 80 House members signed a letter last month requesting that House Speaker John Boehner put forward a spending measure that defunds Obamacare.
Republicans say the healthcare law will hurt job creation, while supporters view it as a landmark initiative that will extend health insurance coverage to millions of Americans.
A senior House Democratic aide said all 200 Democrats intended to oppose the defunding plan. Democrats also are opposed, the aide said, because the Republican funding measure would simply extend current discretionary spending levels that continue "sequester" across-the-board spending cuts, totaling about $988 billion annually.
Democrats favor higher spending levels and want to replace sequester cuts partly with tax increases on the wealthy.
Opposition to the Cantor plan has been fueled by conservative groups and Tea Party activists who see a denial of money as a last-ditch effort to prevent key provisions of the healthcare law from going into effect - notably the October 1 deadline.
Senator Ted Cruz, the conservative firebrand from Texas who is a leader of the campaign, rallied against the Republican plan at a Tea Party gathering outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.
"House Republicans should pass a continuing resolution that funds government in its entirely — except Obamacare — and that explicitly prohibits spending any federal money, mandatory or discretionary, on Obamacare," Cruz said.
The House has taken 40 votes to repeal, defund or otherwise limit the Affordable Care Act since its passage in 2010. Most have simply been ignored by the Senate.
Republican leaders say they share the desire to defund Obamacare, but since neither the Senate nor Obama would ever approve it, they regard it as a lost and politically dangerous cause.
"I think there's a number of people who don't remember when the government was shut down the last time and who carried the burden of that," said Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee.
"That was Republicans. I'm not saying they want to shut the government down. They want to defund Obamacare. But if the inevitable result of the position you are taking and the hard stance you are taking on something shuts the government down, then yeah, you're responsible," Simpson said.
Senate Democrats have little problem with the Cantor plan, a senior Democratic aide said, because they could easily defeat the Obamacare defunding measure and pass the spending measure.
Senate Democrats also would likely support the proposed extension of spending through December 15 at the current, $988 billion rate, which is higher than the $967 billion rate that House Republicans previously advocated.
Editing by Vicki Allen, Andrew Hay and Peter Cooney