Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that Rep. John Boehner became speaker of the House in 2009. He became House speaker in 2011. The following version has been updated.

Dana Milbank
Opinion writer June 21, 2013

House Speaker John Boehner stopped by the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill on Thursday afternoon to pitch a gathering of the National Association of Manufacturers on the Republicans’ plans for jobs and growth.

“While my colleagues and I don’t have the majority here in Washington,” the speaker vowed, “we will continue to pursue our plan.”

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

Or will they?

Not an hour after those words were uttered, Boehner’s House Republicans dealt him the latest in a series of humiliations. Sixty-two Republicans defied him and voted against the farm bill, defeating a major piece of legislation Boehner had made a test of his leadership by pushing for it publicly and voting for it personally — something speakers only do on the most important bills.

The dispute this time was over food stamps and agricultural subsidies, but the pattern was the same: House leaders lost Democratic support by tilting the bill to satisfy the Republican base, but a group of conservative purists remained upset that the legislation didn’t go far enough.

Much the same dynamic confronts Boehner as the House prepares to take up immigration legislation next month. A similar set of pressures has kept Boehner from negotiating a long-term budget deal with the White House.

In all instances, Boehner faces a choice: his job or his legacy. He can enact landmark compromises but lose his job in a conservative coup. Or he can keep his job but get nothing much done.

With a few exceptions — the “fiscal cliff” deal, Hurricane Sandy aid — Boehner has chosen job security over achievement. He did it again this week on immigration, announcing that he doesn’t “see any way of bringing an immigration bill to the floor that doesn’t have a majority support of Republicans.”

That promise, which is essentially the same as saying he won’t allow the House to take up legislation that includes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, puts him on a collision course with the Senate, where a fresh compromise on border security negotiated by Republican Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.) and John Hoeven (N.D.) make it likely that chamber’s legislation, which includes citizenship, will have a large bipartisan majority.

Boehner’s stance blocking an immigration compromise may preserve his speakership, but it would keep his party on what Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) calls a “demographic death spiral” as Latino voters shun the GOP. Beyond the party, Boehner’s position raises the likelihood of failure on another high-profile issue for a Congress that continues to reach new lows in public esteem. Gallup last week found Americans’ confidence in Congress at 10 percent, the lowest ever recorded for any institution.

And that was before Thursday’s farm bill debacle, which saw lawmakers debating all manner of parochial items — olive oil, hemp, Christmas trees, shellfish, even a dairy amendment involving Greek yogurt sponsored by the aptly named Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) — before killing the whole bill.

The bill, which had been awaiting action for a year, was never going to get much Democratic support because of $20 billion in cuts to food stamps. But Republicans lost what support they had on Thursday when they passed an amendment, opposed by all but one House Democrat, adding new work requirements to the food stamp program. That left only 24 Democrats on board, not close to enough to offset the dozens of Republicans who wanted the deeper cuts demanded by conservative groups such as the Club for Growth.

The agriculture committee chairman, Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), pleaded on the floor for colleagues to “put aside whatever the latest e-mail is” and vote with him. “And if you don’t,” he added, “they’ll just say it’s a dysfunctional body, a broken institution full of dysfunctional people.”

After the farm bill went down, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) came to the floor to blame Democrats for the collapse — an argument that might have made sense if Republicans hadn’t just forced through an amendment Democrats called intolerable.

Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip, reminded Cantor that “25 percent of your party voted against the bill . . . and your side’s going to continue to blame us that you couldn’t get the votes on your side.” Hoyer invoked Newt Gingrich’s 1998 speech calling conservative holdouts in the House “the perfectionist caucus.”

Gingrich did indeed call the Republican hard-liners perfectionists and “petty dictators.” He soon lost his job as speaker, in part because of that remark, but by then he had reached compromises with a Democratic president that righted the government’s finances.

It’s an example Boehner would do well to recall.

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