Yesterday’s setback for Speaker John Boehner on a continuing resolution to fund the government shows what little real control Boehner has over his caucus. With 242 members, Boehner has the ability to pass any legislation he wants without Democratic crossover votes – and in this case he got 6 Democratic crossovers. He has a good deal of power at his disposal to threaten Congressmen, to tell them their legislation will never see the light of day, to withhold needed campaign support, to knock them off committee assignments. He did all this and more yesterday. And he still could not budge the more conservative members of his party.

The pressure from an angry Speaker John Boehner didn’t work — he even threatened to strip committee assignments. Four dozen Republicans —mostly conservatives — wanted more cuts, and they just said no, creating an uncomfortable scene on the House floor as the funding bill failed on a 195-230 vote. Democrats showed a rare moment of unity in overwhelmingly opposing the continuing resolution, which would keep the government funded through Nov. 18.

Now, to prevent a government shutdown, Republicans will have to rewrite the bill and figure out how to get the votes […]

Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who sent a letter with more than 100 signers pressuring Speaker Boehner to drop that provision, said Boehner will have to cooperate with Democrats to push a stopgap measure across the finish line.

“He can’t pass this bill with his own members,” Peters said of Boehner. “He has basically 30-40 members in his caucus that are so extreme that they wouldn’t vote for this bill.”

At an institutional level, Boehner needs to get back control of his caucus, so I would expect at least somebody paying a price. But at a practical level, Boehner is completely stuck. He made a promise in the debt limit deal to fund the government at a certain level. The House conservatives who defied him yesterday want him to go lower. But if he does, there’s no way the Senate supports the bill, they accuse him of being a welcher, and the government goes into shutdown.

There’s the side issue of the funding for disaster relief, which was the reason the bill failed yesterday. The funding was smaller than a standalone bill passed by the Senate, and it also offset $1.5 billion of funding by canceling a successful clean vehicle loan guarantee program that has been a proven job creator.

Boehner has unpalatable options now. He can join with Democrats, drop the offset and pass the bill, or drop FEMA funding altogether and take up a clean CR and the clean Senate-passed FEMA bill. But that will hurt him with his own caucus. Or he can join with House conservatives and slash the funding level for the CR. But that won’t pass the Senate and he could be blamed for a shutdown. Boehner gave a hint as to where he’ll go at a press conference.

At a Thursday press conference in the Capitol, Boehner made his preference clear.

House conservatives, he said, “can vote ‘no’ but what they’re in essence doing is they’re voting to spend more money. Because that’s exactly what will happen.”

In other words, by opposing Boehner’s funding bill, conservatives are forcing him to negotiate with Democrats who are demanding he remove the “offset” spending cut — a $1.5 billion hybrid vehicle manufacturing incentive.

Democrats are pressing him to strip the offset, pass a clean funding bill, and then separately pass an emergency disaster relief bill that cleared the Senate on a bipartisan basis last week.

It’s unclear what path he’ll take, but clearly he’s threatening his caucus that he’ll bolt to negotiate with the Democrats. That Tea Party primary challenge to Boehner could get some traction.

David Dayen

David Dayen

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