By Caren Bohan and Rachelle Younglai
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, struggling to ease Republican divisions over how to fight "Obamacare," vowed on Thursday to try to erode the healthcare law, but stopped short of weighing in on a push to deny it funding.
Boehner and other Republicans agree on their distaste for President Barack Obama's signature healthcare overhaul, but the party has been roiled by a debate over whether to threaten a shutdown of the government to try to gut the measure.
As a faction of conservative Republican House lawmakers pushed the shutdown strategy, the speaker held a conference call with rank-and-file members where he discussed Obamacare and his plan for handling an autumn budget standoff.
But according to people on the call, Boehner did not address the idea of refusing to include funds for Obamacare in a broad spending bill Congress must pass within the next weeks.
If fresh legislation to fund the government is not passed by October 1, the government would shut down.
Boehner sketched out a plan in which Republicans would pass a short-term measure to fund the government while insisting on keeping in place steep cuts in spending known as the "sequester."
When Congress reconvenes on September 9 after its summer break, Boehner said, "Our intent is to move quickly on a short-term continuing resolution that keeps the government running and maintains current sequester spending levels."
Earlier on Thursday, about a third of the Republican caucus sent a letter to Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor urging them to oppose any annual spending bills that include funding for Obamacare.
Congressional Republicans have sought repeatedly to repeal the law, saying it will hurt job creation and saddle businesses with extra costs.
Defenders of the law view it as a milestone that will extend health insurance coverage to millions of Americans.
"We look forward to collaborating to defund one of the largest grievances in our time and to restore patient-centered healthcare in America," said Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, who rallied support for the letter signed by 80 House Republicans.
SEARCHING FOR A STRATEGY
Many Republicans fear they would be blamed if the government were to shut down, leading to a backlash in the 2014 congressional elections. Republican leaders, including Boehner and Cantor, are wary of threatening a shutdown over Obamacare, even though they staunchly oppose the health law.
But Meadows and his allies see the funding bill as one of the last chances to stop Obamacare before major provisions of it are rolled out this autumn and at the start of next year.
Prominent Republican senators such as Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida also favor denying any funds for the law.
With the party divided, Republican leaders have been working to find alternative ways to try to weaken the health law.
One idea under consideration is tying approval of an increase in the country's borrowing limit to agreement by the Obama administration to delay implementation of the measure.
An aide to Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, told Reuters on Wednesday that the debt limit was a good "leverage point" to try to force action on Obamacare.
But aides stressed that no final decisions had been made.
Obamacare is riling up crowds in lawmakers' home districts as they meet with constituents during a five-week summer break.
In an effort to get House Republicans to deliver the same message, leaders sent members talking points that included the chamber's long list of efforts to kill Obamacare.
"It is also important to remind your constituents that cracks in Obamacare are growing and getting deeper," said the memo sent by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy and House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
The Republican caucus had yet to coalesce around a specific idea. But as momentum built around using the spending bill to stop funding the healthcare law, Republican leaders started seriously considering a strategy involving the debt limit.
Republican Representative John Fleming, who signed the Meadows letter, said he was receptive to a debt limit strategy but was adamant in wanting to gut Obamacare.
Before Boehner's call, Fleming told Reuters that "Obamacare is despised" in his Louisiana district. The top three concerns for his constituents, he said, were "Obamacare, Obamacare and Obamacare."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said it was "disappointing but hardly surprising" that Republicans would consider tying the debt limit to a delay in Obamacare.
But Earnest reiterated the White House position that Obama has no intention of allowing the debt limit to be used as leverage in a political fight. "The full faith and credit of the United States of America is not a bargaining chip," Earnest told reporters as he traveled with Obama to Buffalo, New York.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Buffalo, New York; Editing by Peter Cooney)