By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Republicans who control the U.S. House of Representatives had to delay another fiscal 2024 government funding bill on Thursday, as their slim majority struggled to overcome internal differences on spending levels and culture war policies a week ahead of a possible government shutdown.
The delay on a bill to fund the White House, Treasury and other agencies poses a headache for new House Speaker Mike Johnson, who is expected to unveil over the next two days a stopgap spending measure aimed at keeping federal agencies open after current funding expires on Nov. 17.
Lawmakers said they expect the Louisiana Republican to unveil a continuing resolution or "CR" to avert a partial government shutdown as late as Saturday. A House vote is tentatively expected on Tuesday.
"I wish the House would just get to work," President Joe Biden told reporters as he departed Washington on Thursday.
"The idea we're playing games with a shutdown at this moment is bizarre," Biden added. "There's no need for any of this."
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer took a procedural step to allow his Democratic-led chamber to pass its own stopgap measure to avert a shutdown.
Johnson can afford to lose no more than four Republican votes from his slim 221-212 House majority on legislation opposed by Democrats. But he is under pressure from Republican hardliners to lumber any CR with spending cuts and policy riders Democrats uniformly reject.
"If there's any kind of CR, there has to be spending reductions," Representative Chip Roy, a prominent conservative, told reporters.
But Representative Tom Cole warned that Johnson may need a "clean" CR at current funding levels to steer well clear of a shutdown.
"We don't have a lot of time to fool around with failure," Cole said. "You may stumble into a shutdown without meaning to do it at all."
Hardline demands for steep spending cuts and policy riders including abortion restrictions have split Republicans for much of 2023, with Republican centrists pushing for a more bipartisan approach that can win support in the Senate.
House Republicans are trying to pass a full slate of 12 appropriations bills for fiscal 2024, which began on Oct. 1. They have succeeded on seven, but the remaining five have proven to be problematic.
Johnson had to pull a Thursday vote on legislation to fund the White House, Treasury, Internal Revenue Service and market regulators after as many as eight centrists objected to language denying the District of Columbia funding over a local law that bans employer discrimination against women who seek abortion or contraception.
"We've got a handful of members that have some concerns," said Representative Steve Womack, who had shepherded the bill through the House Appropriations Committee.
Republican infighting has already led the House to reject an appropriations bill for agriculture, rural development and the Food and Drug Administration in September. In recent days, Johnson also pulled a vote on legislation to fund transportation, housing and urban development after several Republican centrists objected to an absence of funding for the U.S. passenger rail service Amtrak.
Biden and then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in May set a $1.59 trillion discretionary spending budget Congress passed as part of the Fiscal Responsibility Act, or FRA. Hardline Republicans, who later removed McCarthy as speaker, had been pushing for an additional $120 billion in cuts.
But on Thursday, hardliners said they had abandoned their $1.47 trillion top-line number.
"That's out the window. I would like that. It's probably going to go to $1.52 (trillion) or $1.58 (trillion) or something like that," said Representative Ralph Norman, a member of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus.
(Reporting by David Morgan; Additional reporting by Nandita Bose and Susan Heavey; Editing by Scott Malone, David Gregorio and Mark Porter)