How the GOP Could Break an Unwritten Rule and Pass Immigration Reform

PHOTO: House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, answering questions about the impending automatic spending cuts that take effect March 1.

House Republican leaders eschewed a long-held principle when they held a vote on the Violence Against Women Act on Thursday. Only 87 out of 232 House Republicans backed that bill, but they still chose to bring it to a vote.

That decision made all the difference. The bill passed thanks to near-unanimous support from House Democrats and backing from some Republicans.

By allowing the bill to come to a vote, Republicans broke the "Hastert Rule" -- named after former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). The basic idea: don't let something come to a vote unless a majority of the party supports it.

If the unofficial Hastert rule is no longer a precedent for House Republicans, that could have a implications for other controversial, bigger pieces of legislation this year, such as immigration reform.

The rule has been a guiding convention for House Republicans for years. Hastert coined the phrase in a 2004 speech, in which he said that the House would only bring a bill to the floor if "a majority of the majority" (i.e., a majority of Republicans) backed it. Since then, Republicans have largely operated under that rule when they have controlled the House of Representatives, including under the current speakership of John Boehner (R-Ohio).

But Thursday's vote was not the first time this year that House GOP leaders allowed a vote on a bill that did not enjoy support from the majority of their conference. A deal to avert the fiscal cliff at the beginning of the year passed the House with only 85 Republican votes at the tail end of the last Congress. And only 49 Republicans voted for a relief package for victims of Superstorm Sandy, which passed into law.

That has led some to believe the rule could be tossed aside again on key issues, a bow to the reality of divided government.

"The idea that you're going to do everything just within your party might be a good idea [for the GOP], but it's not going to last very long," said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a long-time observer of Congress.

Ornstein added that bills that can pass the Democrat-controlled Senate and receive President Barack Obama's signature "are probably going to require more Democrats than Republicans" to vote for them in the House.

Boehner's flock of House Republicans is uncompromising, often more so than their GOP colleagues in the Senate. For example, 35 percent of House Republicans voted for the fiscal cliff deal compared to 85 percent of Senate Republicans.

Thus Boehner may not be able to follow Hastert's mantra if he wants to ensure that the House does not become mired in gridlock and maintain his conference's credibility, argued John Feehery, a lobbyist and former communications director for Hastert. Feehery would know -- he penned the "majority of the majority" speech.

"I think John Boehner won't have much of a choice in these first several months of the 113th Congress. He has to get stuff done," Feehery wrote in a January op-ed column titled, "Rules Are Made to Be Broken."

"The Speaker doesn't have much room to maneuver," he added. "His conference is in no mood to compromise, nor in much of a mood to vote for anything that resembles responsible governance."

Boehner's office played coy as to how or if the majority-of-the-majority-principle would be applied to future votes.

"The current Speaker has never mentioned such a rule," Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in an e-mail.

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