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Republican Peter King Takes the Lead

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While the Republican House leadership continues to talk tough, the moderate majority has taken a first big step toward undermining its position. On Saturday, more than 100 Democrats signed a petition discharging a bill from the Rules Committee that would force an up-or-down vote on a "clean" continuing resolution that would reopen the government with no strings attached.

Since the Democrats are in the minority, this might seem a symbolic gesture. House rules insist that a majority of the entire membership must sign up before the petition can force the clean CR onto the floor.

This is why a recent announcement by Representative Peter King is genuinely important. He is the first Republican to threaten publicly to buck the leadership and join the effort to force a vote: "If we have to do a discharge petition, ultimately, we will, but this is going to come [to the floor]."

Though King is from New York, he should not be mistaken for an old-fashioned moderate Republican. He is a full-blooded Reaganite, but he is realistic enough to recognize that his party is engaged in a suicide mission -- and that extreme measures are required to save both his party and the country from very serious harm.

King's threat won't immediately force Speaker Boehner into a humiliating defeat on the floor. Under the rules, the House only considers discharge petitions on the second and fourth Monday of each month -- and there's no chance that 217 signatures will magically appear before tomorrow, which is the second Monday of October.

Nevertheless, his public announcement immediately changes the political equation. Now that negotiations between Speaker Boehner and President Obama have broken down, it will be up to Senate majority leader Harry Reid to strike a deal with his Republican counterpart Mitch McConnell. When the terms are announced, it will take the Senate until Wednesday or so to pass the measure onto the House -- leaving Speaker Boehner to respond at the last minute before the country hits its debt ceiling.

This is the moment when King's threat will make a difference. Speaker Boehner is now on notice that he cannot continue to buckle to the hard right without retribution from the realist center. If he refuses to allow the full House to vote approval of the Senate measure, his anti-majoritarian action will force enough Republicans to join King and create a majority for the discharge petition -- leading to his humiliation on October 28, when the rules once again make an up-or-down vote the order of the day.

At that point, the rules make it impossible for the Speaker to push the discharge petition off the floor. The House cannot conduct any other business until the matter is "disposed of."

When faced with this clear and present danger of defeat, there is every prospect that Speaker Boehner will cave this Wednesday when the Senate initiative returns to the House. Amidst all the last-minute melodrama, the significance of Peter King's important announcement is likely to be forgotten.

It shouldn't be.

Bruce Ackerman is professor of law and political science at Yale.