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Boehner's strength questioned after farm bill failure

A conservative revolt against House Speaker John Boehner has prompted anxiety among immigration reform proponents that the unrest might be a preview of things to come as the weakened Republican leader heads into heavier legislative waters.

The dramatic 195-234 defeat of the farm bill – with more than 60 GOP defections – left Boehner appearing out of control of his own conference, allowing gleeful Democrats to publicly label his operation “weak” and mired in “amateur hour.”

With a whip operation that was clearly caught flat-footed when Democrats failed to support the bill, some Republicans privately point to what they call a flawed leadership structure, saying that Boehner has been unable to get his team on the same page for issues the party cares about.  

And that, they say, doesn’t bode well for immigration reform either.

“I think the real question is that does Speaker Boehner have the support of his lieutenants?” one GOP aide pondered to NBC News.

Boehner loyalists contend that Democrats failed to deliver promised votes on the farm bill and argue that another partisan breakdown is likely to happen on an issue as politically charged as immigration.

“Anyone bothering to look 10 feet down the road knows that the real loser is President Obama’s second term agenda, particularly on immigration,” a House Republican leadership aide said, “How are we ever going to rely on an agreement, or a vote count, or a promise from House Democrats?”

But the grumbling Republican staffers say that the farm bill drama highlighted differences between Boehner and his second-in-command, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. Boehner publicly supported the bill and pushed for its passage – a rarity for the speaker – while Cantor pushed for an amendment that peeled off possible Democratic supporters for the bill – votes that could have helped Boehner muscle the legislation to passage.

“The first time [Majority Leader Cantor] had ever spoken on the floor about the farm bill was about an amendment that was a deal breaker,” the GOP aide said, referring to an amendment introduced by Rep Steve Southerland, R-Fla. That amendment, which Cantor took to the floor to support, would apply federal welfare work requirements to food stamp programs. It passed 227-198.

An aide to Cantor noted that the majority leader’s support for the measure, and the fact that it would pass, “came as no surprise to any single Democrat, as it had been discussed for weeks.”

“(Cantor’s) support of this concept is not new,” the aide said, “And to say the amendment would’ve been fine so long as he didn’t reiterate that support simply doesn’t pass the laugh test.”

And when it comes to immigration, Republican leadership is no closer to a consensus.

Cantor has said that he supports a legalization process for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, but has not addressed the issue of citizenship for adults who came to the country illegally. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., a key player who is currently spearheading work on one set of possible immigration measures, has said he flat-out opposes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Boehner has refused to disclose his personal views on the citizenship issue, insisting only that the House will do its own work regardless of whether the Senate passes its version of the bill with broad support.

“My job isn't to try to impose my will on 434 other members, my job is to try to facilitate a discussion and build bipartisan support for a product that will address this broken immigration system that we have,” he told reporters this week.

Democratic aides say that the only chance an immigration bill will pass the House will be with a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and some Republicans.

But that would likely require Boehner to agree to bring a comprehensive immigration bill to the floor – either the bipartisan one being debated in the Senate or a parallel effort being drafted by a deal-making coalition in the House – that might not have majority support from House Republicans, something he promised this week he wouldn’t do.

The conundrum leaves Boehner open to accusations both from conservatives who fear he could break that promise, or to Democrats who could accuse him of single-handedly scuttling a sweeping attempt at reforming the nation’s broken immigration system.

“Anything significant in this Congress has passed with the significant support of House Democrats,” a Democratic leadership aide said, “So let’s see if they really want to get an immigration bill.”