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

The weakened Hastert Rule could have an impact on a wide range of pressing fiscal issues, including a fix to replace the $85 billion in mandatory spending cuts this year known as "sequestration."

But it has also given Democrats hope that some of their legislative priorities, such as comprehensive immigration reform, could get through the GOP-controlled House. Obama has said that he wants a bill passed as soon as this summer and groups of lawmakers in both chambers have begun to draft legislation.

"It's clear that the Hastert Rule isn't as hard and fast as it has appeared to be over the past couple of years," Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a member of a bipartisan working group in the House drafting immigration reform legislation, told ABC/Univision. "That does provide hope that if we were in a situation where the Senate passed an immigration reform bill and the president and American people were demanding a bill, that Speaker Boehner could find a way to move the legislation toward a sensible outcome if a majority of House Republicans do not support it."

Gutierrez said, however, that the aim is to come up with a bill that satisfies both a majority of Republicans and Democrats, undoubtedly a tough task.

"That would be a plan B, regardless," he added. "The best scenario is to have a bill where the Hastert Rule isn't a hindrance."

So far, Boehner has been able to bring bills to the floor without majority Republican support while not experiencing a major backlash from the rank-and-file. For example, he allowed a floor vote on a version of the Violence Against Women Act that was backed by House Republicans, but the version of the bill did not contain specific protections for undocumented immigrants, Native Americans, gays, and lesbians. That bill failed to pass and the House later approved another version with the protections included, even though the bill didn't have majority Republican support in the House.

But Ornstein said it's unclear how many more times Boehner and House leaders could accomplish that kind of maneuver before it foments a rebellion from Republicans who represent very conservative districts, which could undermine his role as Speaker of the House.

At the same time, Ornstein said, Boehner must recognize demands from top Republicans who believe the party must address controversial issues like immigration in an effort to help repair their standing with Hispanic voters. Some GOP strategists have said that will be necessary to remain competitive in national elections.

"There's no tougher job in the country than Boehner's at this point," Ornstein said.

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