House Democrats last night didn’t do what they have done so many times before since the 2010 election: they didn’t provide the House leadership with the votes it needed to pass a budget bill.

A combination (you can’t really refer to it as a “coalition” because they weren’t working together) of tea party Republicans and Democrats voted against the leadership-supported continuing resolution and it went down 195 to 230 with 48 Republicans voting no.

This may have been the worst defeat and biggest rebuke ever for House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA).  A number of House members told me after the vote that both leaders had worked the vote hard but couldn’t convince enough (some thought “any” was more correct) to vote for the legislation.  Two members even told me that Boehner had gone to the congressional leadership equivalent of DEFCON 1 by moving way beyond twisting arms to threatening GOP members with losing their committee assignments — almost the ultimate congressional punishment — if they didn’t vote for the bill.  Even that didn’t work.

Two things are most noteworthy about this situation.

First, after providing the votes the GOP leadership needed to pass the 2011 CR they didn’t like last April and the debt ceiling/deficit reduction bill they didn’t want in August, House Democrats for the first time on a major budget bill didn’t help the GOP leadership.  That’s a significant change that some attributed in part to the new, more aggressive tone the White House has been taking on budget and economic issues.

Second, no matter how they try to spin it today as being the Democrats’ fault, this in fact was a huge slap in the face of the GOP leadership by the tea party.  It’s not the first time the tea partiers have voted against the GOP leadership, but it is the most visible and painful.

The big question now is the one we’ve been wondering about for some time in analogous budget situations: Where do Boehner and Cantor go from here?

On the one hand, they can move to the right to pick up tea party votes by (1) proposing bigger spending reductions for fiscal 2012 than were included in the bill that was defeated yesterday and (2) continuing to refuse to allow the Hurricane Irene-related disaster assistance to be provided unless others spending is cut to pay for it.  The tea partiers want fiscal 2012 discretionary spending to be set at the level included in the House-passed budget resolution — AKA, the Ryan plan — rather than the higher level included in the debt ceiling increase/deficit reduction plan (the Budget Control Act) enacted on August 2.

The problem with this strategy, however, is that it will likely lose other votes from Republicans in North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey — the states that were hardest hit by Irene.  Note that three of these four — all but North Carolina — have Republican governors who have said that they want/need/must have the federal assistance.  And House Democrats are very unlikely to go along.

In other words, moving toward the tea party may not guarantee that the bill passes.

On the other hand, moving  in the other direction on this one bill very likely will cause the tea party to split permanently with the two House leaders.  The tea partiers have been leery of both Boehner and Cantor since the start of the year.  In fact, a tea party supporter is running against Boehner in the GOP primary and the Virginia tea party has been threatening to challenge Cantor since before the 2010 election.  Working with House Democrats at this point might get the bill passed but might also make it all but impossible for the GOP leadership to lead in 2012, that is, in the months heading into an election where anger about Congress is already at an all-time high.

[Cross-posted at Capital Gains & Games]

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