By David Lawder and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A battle among Republicans in the House of Representatives over government spending laid bare on Thursday deep divisions that threaten the party's hopes of major gains in the November congressional elections.
House Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, faced a new challenge to his authority as lawmakers aligned to the budget-slashing Tea Party movement ignored his plea to support a $260 billion job creation measure he had championed.
Boehner told reporters he was ready to abandon the highway, bridges and railroad funding bill after fiscally conservative lawmakers balked at the price tag.
The bill was meant to help Republicans stake an election-year claim as the party of job creation, funding as many as 7.8 million new jobs in the U.S. construction industry.
But Tea Party-affiliated lawmakers, a powerful group within the 242-member House Republican caucus, were elected in 2010 on a wave of voter discontent over a bad economy and government spending. They have repeatedly shown themselves to be uncompromising on tax and spending issues, bringing the United States to the brink of an unprecedented debt default last year.
"This is a very difficult process we're in," Boehner acknowledged on Thursday. "We've got a new majority, we've got 89 freshmen and my job every day is to work with our members and find out where the center of gravity is," he said.
Boehner has struggled over the past year to control an unruly caucus that has often bucked his leadership, raising repeated questions about his staying power. The Republican leader and aides dismiss talk that he is vulnerable to an ouster.
But internal revolt is also stirring over federal spending levels for 2013. Fiscally conservative lawmakers now want even deeper spending cuts than those agreed to with the White House in a deficit reduction deal last August.
So, instead of putting the finishing touches on a budget that they can contrast with Democratic spending priorities in an election year, Republican leaders huddled with House Budget Committee members on Thursday in an effort to quell the conflict within their party.
But they failed to agree on a spending cut target that could please both conservatives and more moderate members.
"There are differences of opinion within our conference," Representative Mike Simpson told reporters after the meeting.
AIDES ACKNOWLEDGE DIFFICULTIES
Veteran Washington political analyst Larry Sabato said there was a "deep divide, not fully acknowledged within the caucus."
"They don't grasp how deep," he said.
The intra-party infighting comes seven weeks after House Republicans pledged at a party retreat to bury their differences and unify to defeat President Barack Obama in November.
The display of unity followed a public relations nightmare for them in December when the party struggled to heal an internal rift over whether to extend a costly payroll tax cut extension for 160 million Americans.
The squabbling threatens to distract the party when it is meant to be focused on retaining control of the House and recapturing the Senate from Democrats.
Two senior House Republicans aides, asking not to be identified, acknowledged the difficulties their party faced just eight months before the November 6 elections.
"It is easy to take a snapshot now and say, 'look things aren't going well,'" one of the aides said, while laying the blame on Democrats. "We don't have the Senate and we don't have the White House. Nobody expected this Congress would be easy."
The second aide said Boehner was in a difficult bind. If he decided to allow a 2013 House budget proposal with deeper spending cuts than planned in order to win Tea Party support, he could end up painting the party into a corner.
The aide said setting a lower level in the spending bills might be popular with some voters, but the bills, which must be approved by September 30, were unlikely to get Democratic votes and enough moderate Republican support to assure passage.
That would leave Republicans with two choices just six weeks before the November 6 elections, the aide said: Switch their votes to support the higher spending levels - a potentially embarrassing move - or threaten government shutdowns as funding would be running out with the start of the new fiscal year on October 1. That likely would bring a strong voter backlash.
Representative Bill Shuster, a six-term Republican who worked to build Republican support for the now-stalled transportation bill, said the large number of Republican newcomers to the House makes for an uphill battle.
"You have 89 members who never seen a transportation bill before," Shuster said of the freshmen, many of them Tea Party supporters. "It's a lot of people to educate."
(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro, editing by Ross Colvin; desking by Cynthia Osterman)