09/23/2011 01:58 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2011

Hostage-Taking on the Rubicon

Washington, DC -- Ever since giving his American Jobs Act speech, President Obama has hewed consistently to a new path -- one that recognizes the futility of appeasing the Tea Party when it is determined to block economic recovery in order to carry the next election. He followed through in his deficit remarks, making it clear that he would veto any deficit-reduction bill that cut medical care for the elderly without also increasing taxes on oil companies and the wealthy. He then told Congress, two days ago, that if House Republicans tried to block the EPA from the protecting of public health from pollutants like mercury, sulfur, soot, and smog, he would veto the legislation.

The president's firmness has exposed a deep fault line that runs through the Republican caucus in Congress -- and between that caucus and its broad-based constituency. Now that Obama is no longer signaling conciliation, it becomes Speaker Boehner's turn to experience the folly of trying to legislate with a faction that seeks to reignite the Civil War and take down the nation itself. Boehner's initial response to Obama's jobs and deficit plans was to reaffirm where his party's loyalties lie. He proposed that if Americans wanted to continue repairing bridges, roads, and other infrastructure, the price they must pay was turning over America's wilderness to the oil industry.

Boehner next put all of his chips on the line to pass through the House a Continuing Resolution, the short-term funding mechanism that keeps the national government functioning if Congress cannot pass routine appropriations. Boehner's appropriation bill demonstrated his fealty to the core, quasi-terrorist Tea Party strategy: At every opportunity to cut social services or vital national investments, take (and ideally shoot) some hostages. In this case, the hostage was funding for disaster relief to help Americans like those in Rick Perry's Texas (where the federal government helped out with fire and drought damage earlier this year) or House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's Virginia (hurricane victims).

The victim to be sacrificed to end this particular episode of hostage taking was America's commitment to investments in advanced vehicle manufacturing technology, the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program. This ploy was set up a few days earlier, when Senate Republicans refused to let the Senate even debate a disaster-relief bill that was not tied to further slashing of the nation's economic future. Without a clean Senate Continuing Resolution, Boehner had his window to demonstrate that hostage taking was the unified response of the Republicans in Congress to the fires in Texas and the hurricanes in the East.

Boehner and his colleagues were opposed by the UAW, the environmental community, the National Association of Manufacturing and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which wrote: "While the Chamber understands the importance of reducing America's unacceptable debt and believes that all programs must be on the table, the Chamber urges you to bear in mind the facts about the ATVM loan program, which promotes manufacturing in the U.S. and is an important component of America's energy security."

Boehner was not moved. House Democrats expressed understandable shock at the idea that the victims of the next disaster -- whatever it might be -- were being held hostage to the Tea Party's wish-list of program cuts. Unsurprisingly, the minority came down on the side of the broad-based coalition that extended from the Sierra Club to the Chamber of Commerce. They voted -- all but eight of them -- against Boehner's version of the Continuing Resolution. That apparently didn't bother the Speaker. But what he had apparently not realized was that any Continuing Resolution that could pass -- even one that slashed the future of America's manufacturing economy -- was unacceptable to his Tea Party caucus. Forty-eight Republican members voted against the Boehner Continuing Resolution, ensuring that, with unified Democratic opposition, the bill was defeated. Media reported that Boehner was "'spitting nails' during a closed-door member meeting on Wednesday, and his harsh talk demonstrated that the usually unflappable speaker is reaching something close to a breaking point with his internally divided conference."

The Speaker appeared to have two options: Lasso his recalcitrant extremists into flip-flopping and voting for the Resolution complete with ransom demands, or pass a simple extension of government spending authority with Democratic votes and give up the hostage game, at least for this round.

Since Boehner knows that his hostage demands have no chance of passing the Senate in any event, wisdom would suggest that he begin, however tentatively, to wade across the Rubicon, just as Obama did a few weeks ago. Boehner needs to recognize that trying to govern while dependent on a faction that wants the government to fail is simply a bridge too far.