The vote originally scheduled for Wednesday is now set for Thursday. That may give Boehner (R., Ohio) more time to hunt for votes, but it gives Congress and the White House even less time for maneuvering.
Meanwhile, public head-butting between President Obama and the Republicans showed no sign of easing. The White House declared Obama would veto the Boehner bill, even if it somehow got through the House and the Democratic-controlled Senate.
For all that, it was the tea party-backed members of Boehner's own party who continued to vex him and heavily influence the debt and deficit negotiating terms - not to mention his chances of holding on to the speakership.
Their adamant opposition to any tax increases forced Boehner to back away from a "grand bargain" with Obama that might have made dramatic cuts in government spending. Yet when Boehner turned this week to a more modest cost-cutting plan, with no tax increases, many conservatives balked again. They said the proposal lacked the more potent tools they seek, such as a constitutional mandate for balanced budgets.
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, chairman of a large group of conservative Republicans, sent a tremor through the Capitol on Tuesday when he said he doubted Boehner had enough support to pass his plan. The Boehner bill would provide an immediate debt-ceiling increase but would require further action before the 2012 elections.
Obama strongly opposes that last requirement, arguing that it would reopen the delicate and crucial debt discussions to unending political pressure during next year's campaigns.
The president supports a separate bill, pushed by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) in the Senate, that would raise the debt ceiling enough to tide the government over through next year - and the elections.
Boehner wasn't helped when presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty and the groups Tea Party Patriots and Tea Party Express criticized his plan. A worse blow came in an official congressional analysis late Tuesday, which said his plan would produce smaller savings than originally promised. The Congressional Budget Office found that Boehner's measure would cut the deficit by $850 billion during the next decade.
Boehner's office said it would rewrite the legislation to make sure the spending cuts exceeded the amount the debt limit would be raised. Adding a political touch, it accused the Democrats of declining to put forward specifics subject to the same sort of review.
Earlier, responding to the conservative Republican opposition, Boehner went on Rush Limbaugh's radio show, then began one-on-one chats with wavering Republicans on the House floor during midday roll-call votes.
An almost dire urgency ran through Boehner's efforts. The clock was ticking down to Tuesday's deadline to continue the government's borrowing powers and avert possible defaults on U.S. loans.
The stock market fell again, although not dramatically. California planned to borrow about $5 billion from private investors as a hedge against a possible federal government default.
Congressional veterans say a final-hour bargain can't be reached until both parties prove to themselves and the public that neither the Democrats' top goals nor the Republicans' can be reached in the divided Congress.
Moreover, Boehner's grasp on the speakership could be weakened if he fails to pass the debt-ceiling plan that bears his name. Assuming no more than five Democrats support the measure - the same number that backed a GOP balanced-budget bill last week - Boehner can afford to lose no more than 28 of the House's 240 Republicans.
His allies predicted he will make it, and Boehner got a vocal endorsement from his sometimes rival, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.). But holdouts were not limited to the much-discussed freshman class, elected in the tea party-fueled 2010 elections.
"He can't get my vote because I felt like that, for long-term solutions to this problem, all these promises we make in cutting spending never seem to occur," said Rep. Phil Gingrey (R., Ga.). "I've been here nine years, and I've never seen it happen yet."
Six-term Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a longtime critic of deficit spending, said he also was leaning against Boehner's bill even though he knows a tougher measure cannot be enacted.
Major business groups weighed in. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce urged support of Boehner's bill, while the conservative Club for Growth denounced it as too weak.
The Senate worked on other issues, waiting to see if Boehner's bill would pass the House and come its way. Reid said the Boehner bill could not pass his chamber.
Reid has his own plan. Like Boehner's, it would identify about $1.2 trillion in spending cuts to the day-to-day operating budgets of government agencies. Reid's proposal, however, would require only one congressional vote to raise the debt ceiling before the 2012 elections. And it counts an extra $1 trillion in savings from winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.