WASHINGTON -- An intense endgame at hand, House Republican leaders put off a vote Thursday night on legislation to avert a threatened government default and slice federal spending by nearly $1 trillion.

GOP leaders announced their decision after abruptly halting debate on the legislation and plunging into an intensive round of meetings with rebellious conservatives.

The decision created fresh turmoil as a divided government struggled to head off a default threatened after next Tuesday that would leave the Treasury without the funds needed to pay all its bills.

As the evening slipped by, the White House poked fun at Republicans led by Speaker John Boehner, who has become President Barack Obama's principal antagonist in a contentious era of divided government. And Senate Democrats pledged to scuttle the measure -- if it ever got to them -- to force a final compromise.

Boehner summoned a string of Republican critics of the bill to his office.

Asked what he and the speaker had talked about, Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said, "I think that's rather obvious. ... There's negotiations going on."

Based on public statements by lawmakers themselves, it appeared that five of some two dozen holdouts were from South Carolina. The state is also represented by Sen. Jim DeMint, who has solid ties to tea party groups and is a strong critic of compromising on the debt issue.

A few first-term conservatives slipped into a small chapel a few paces down the hall from the Capitol Rotunda as they contemplated one of the most consequential votes of their careers.

Asked if he was seeking divine inspiration, Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said that had already happened. "I was leaning no and now I am a no."

Many more congregated in the office of the chief GOP vote counter, California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, perhaps drawn to the 19 boxes of pizza that were rolled in. Boehner joined them but did not speak to reporters.

"Clock ticks towards August 2, House is naming post offices, while leaders twist arms for a pointless vote. No wonder people hate Washington," White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer tweeted.

Earlier, Boehner had exuded optimism. "Let's pass this bill and end the crisis," said the president's principal Republican antagonist in a new and contentious era of divided government. "It raises the debt limit and cuts government spending by a larger amount."