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With the congressional debate over Syria on pause the House is hitting rewind, returning to a familiar battle that's expected to dominate the fall: the long-running fight over spending and the debt. The House was supposed to act this week to avoid a government shutdown at the end of the month. Leaders had hoped to avoid a true fight.

But as NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith reports, the vote has been delayed and drama is brewing.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Conservatives who oppose the president's health care law - Tea Party groups and others - have been trying all year to get Republicans in Congress to take a stand; to use one of the various cliffs and budget deadlines as leverage to defund or otherwise destroy ObamaCare. They spent the August recess arguing that this month's budget deadline presents the last best chance to undo the law. And they brought their case yesterday to Capitol Hill.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

JENNY BETH MARTIN: Defund it. Defund it...

PROTESTERS: Defund it.

KEITH: Jenny Beth Martin, the president of Tea Party Patriots, whipped up a crowd of supporters.

MARTIN: It is time to exempt America from ObamaCare.

KEITH: But just hours earlier, House Republican leaders unveiled a plan to keep the government funded without any real likelihood of defunding the law. The idea is a sort of convoluted, only-in-Congress procedure. There would be a single vote in the House on a measure to fund government operations through December, while separately defunding ObamaCare. Then, once the bill was sent over to the Senate, Senators would be forced to vote on ObamaCare before taking up the government funding language.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor explained the idea at a press conference.

REP. ERIC CANTOR: The House has taken a stand numerous times on its opinion of ObamaCare. It's time for the Senate to stand up and tell their constituents where they stand on this atrocity of a law.

KEITH: It probably goes without saying the Democratically-controlled Senate would vote to uphold one of the president's signature accomplishments, making this just another show vote. Cantor has suggested the next debt ceiling fight, expected in October, would present a better opportunity to attack ObamaCare. Out on the west front of the Capitol, the House leadership plan was greeted with derision by Martin.

MARTIN: Over the next few days, we're going to see all sorts of games, showmanship, shenanigans, and other things that the people in the ruling elite will try to do to pull the wool over our eyes.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

KEITH: All of the major outside conservative groups have called for a no-vote. But it isn't just the outsiders that House leaders have to worry about. A line of conservative House members streamed out to the rally, to subtly and not so subtly criticize the plan. Tim Huelskamp is a Republican from Kansas.

REP. TIM HUELSKAMP: We've got some folks that say they're opposed to ObamaCare but they just announced a strategy to make absolutely certain that the U.S. House will not, will not defund ObamaCare.

KEITH: Huelskamp is an outspoken critic and general thorn in the side of the House leadership, but he's not alone. There are somewhere between 15 and 30, maybe more in the Republican conference, who are unlikely to support the strategy. And given the current balance of power in the House, if Democrats are united against something, it doesn't take many Republican defectors to cause major trouble for the leadership.

New York Democrat Louise Slaughter is ranking member on the Rules Committee. And she says if conservatives mounted an effort to block the bill from reaching the floor...

REP. LOUISE SLAUGHTER: I think I can assure you that every Democratic vote will be there with them.

KEITH: A House leadership aide now says a vote on the spending measure has been moved to next week, citing the need to spend more time working with members on the complicated plan. Generally, this is a sign the votes aren't there for passage. Remember, this was supposed to be the low-drama fall budget battle.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol.

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