In another embarrassment for House Speaker John Boehner, the farm bill went down to a surprise defeat in the House this afternoon, 195-234. Most Democrats voted against it, because of its deep cuts to food stamps, but what really sealed its fate is that in spite of those cuts, 62 Republicans voted against it, too, apparently because it didn’t cut spending enough.

The leadership of the House GOP — which, last time I checked, controls the Lower Chamber — is blaming Democrats for failing to deliver enough votes to make passage possible. A spokesman for Eric Cantor claimed it shows Dems “are not able to govern.” Jed Lewison has a good post demonstrating how absurd this is:

First, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi made it clear earlier this week that Democrats weren’t going to provide the winning margin. Second, if Republicans insist on doing things like trying to cut $20 billion from food assistance programs, they really shouldn’t be shocked when Democrats don’t enthusiastically jump on board.

I’d add, however, that this is useful in a perverse way, as a reminder of the degree to which the House GOP leadership needs Democrats to get things done, given its inability to count on the support of House conservatives. And this has implications for the immigration debate, too.

“This underscores that Boehner cannot pass bills on his own,” Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein told me in a quick interview today. “He can’t do anything with only Republicans. The real power center in the House is not Boehner. It’s not Cantor. It’s not Ryan. It’s not McCarthy. It’s the extreme right. This shows the real dilemma ahead for a Speaker who is very weak and very conscious of his weakness within the party.”

Interestingly, Ornstein noted that today’s outcome sheds light on the perils ahead for Boehner’s strategy in the immigration debate. Boehner continues to insist that he will not allow a House vote on anything that doesn’t have the support of a majority of House Republicans. But today’s vote, Ornstein says, is a reminder that there may be nothing that can get the support of Senate Dems and the President that can be passed out of the House without a lot of Democrats. At the same time, anything that can get the support of a lot of Democrats probably can’t get support from a majority of House Republicans — which means it wouldn’t get a vote.

Or so Boehner claims, anyway. Ornstein says this problem may leave Boehner with no choice but to “bite the bullet and pass the Senate bill or something very close to it, knowing he’s going to lose a majority of his own party.” The alternative, of course, is passing nothing. But by underscoring House GOP dysfunction, Ornstein notes, today’s outcome may have rendered that option less attractive to House GOP leaders: “You’ve got to believe there will be a little pressure on them to show they can accomplish something.”

Ornstein’s final verdict on today’s display from House Republicans: “They’re pathetic.”


UPDATE: Wonkblog has a useful summary of what’s in the bill.