Farm bill setback opens House GOP up to new attacks about ability to lead

The surprising defeat of the farm bill is the latest setback for Republican leaders, who have struggled for two-and-a-half years to use their majority to pass major legislation out of the House.

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Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had hoped to use the extended farm bill process to demonstrate the wisdom of his commitment to “regular order” — allowing the measure to emerge from the Agriculture Committee and face dozens of amendments on the House floor.

Instead, the rare floor defeat on legislation supported by Boehner and his entire leadership team allowed Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to gleefully call her GOP counterparts amateurs in running the House.

It also renewed questions about Boehner's ability to lead his fractious conference.

If the House GOP cannot move a farm bill, how will it move immigration reform or a debt ceiling deal?

GOP leaders blamed Democrats and insisted their whip counts were accurate, even as Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who helped whip support for the bill, said he was surprised at the 62 GOP defections.

“I was surprised by about half of them,” he said. “I thought they would have taken more of a 10,000-foot view.”

In a private meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Wednesday, Boehner cited the farm bill process to describe how he intended to move immigration reform through the House, according to Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.).

The Senate seems poised to pass an immigration bill with bipartisan support as early as next week, a move that will put pressure on the House to move forward with its own legislation.

The Senate had already approved a farm bill, and Boehner hoped to match the upper chamber by passing agriculture legislation after dodging a floor vote on the bill last year.

But in a matter of minutes Thursday, the long months of negotiations, hearings and amendments on the farm bill collapsed in a stinging and embarrassing loss for Boehner’s vision.

“What [was] happening on the floor today was a demonstration of major amateur hour,” a visibly giddy Pelosi told reporters. “They didn't get results, and they put the blame on somebody else.”

Pelosi described the stewardship of the bill as “juvenile” and wondered why Republican leaders would allow conservatives a vote on two amendments she described as poison pills if some of those members were still going to oppose the final bill.

The first controversial amendment, championed by Boehner, eliminated government production limits on dairy processors. The second, sponsored Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.), empowered states to require food stamp beneficiaries to seek work while on the program.

Pelosi noted that 61 Republicans voted for the Southerland amendment, then voted against the final bill.

“It's a stunning thing,” she said. “Why would you give people an amendment that's going to kill your bill?”

Privately, some GOP lawmakers offered assessments in line with Pelosi’s.

“We can’t even do a f****** farm bill,” groused one frustrated GOP lawmaker, who predicted the House Republican approval rating would drop further.

Boehner earlier on Thursday poked at Senate Democrats for not moving legislation to prevent a hike in student loan interest rates. The House has approved legislation that Boehner argues is similar to proposals from President Obama.

Passing the farm bill might have underlined an image of a House working its will. Instead, the student loan argument was drowned out by the failure of the farm bill, which left lobbyists for the legislation filled with angst.

“We are going to be redoubling our efforts,” one lobbyist told The Hill. “Our job as agriculture is to go to the House and say, 'Mr. Speaker, what is your plan for getting this done?'”

It wasn’t just Tea Party Republicans who voted against the bill.

Six committee chairmen voted "no," including House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the author of the dairy amendment backed by Boehner.

The other chairmen who voted against the bill were Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), Veterans Affairs Committee Chairmen Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.).

“It’s a tough business,” Deputy Whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) said.

He promised that next week’s closed-door meeting of House Republicans would be “real interesting.”

For Democrats, the display played right into an emerging theme of their 2014 campaign — that of a Republican Congress “in chaos” that can’t be trusted to govern and can’t produce results.

“If Leader Pelosi was Speaker Pelosi, this would never have happened,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said as Pelosi stood smiling next to him.

In the Senate, Democrats gloated that they have already passed a farm bill with bipartisan support, while GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) tweeted it was unfortunate the House did not pass a bill.

“On nearly every major issue, the House has rightly accepted the bipartisan work of the Senate," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement.

"Speaker Boehner should take the same commendable approach now, and do the right thing for farmers and Americans who rely on nutrition assistance by passing the Senate’s bipartisan farm bill."