06/14/2013 04:19 pm ET Updated Jun 14, 2013

GOP House 'Insurgents' Pushing To Weaponize The 'Hastert Rule'


For those of you keeping up with the myriad reasons that the current push for comprehensive immigration reform might come to nothing -- which include "the vagaries amendment process might lead Marco Rubio to abandon his bill" and "the perpetual existence of Lindsay Graham, slayer of deals" -- let's not forget the House of Representatives. And the new new thing to worry about is an "insurgent group of House Republicans" that is "pushing to codify the 'Hastert rule.'” Roll Call's Emma Dumain has the story:

It’s not likely the full Republican Conference would back a formal rule, which would tie the hands of Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio as he tries to get immigration legislation and debt and budget deals through the House later this year.

But with an immigration rewrite looming and Boehner unwilling to guarantee that he’ll follow the Hastert rule, some of the more conservative House Republicans are nervous a compromise will be brought to the floor that falls short of their priorities — such as provisions to guarantee border security — and includes components many dislike, including a pathway to citizenship that some blast as a form of “amnesty.”

“Normally, the Hastert Rule is not that critical of a thing, but in this case, with something so important as immigration, it’s important that you have the people’s will reflected,” Rep. John Fleming, R-La., said. “And the Hastert rule would do a greater job to achieve that.”

What is the Hastert rule? I'm glad you asked. Named for Rep. Denny Hastert (R-Ill.), who served as speaker of the House from January of 1999 until January of 2007, the basic concept is that the speaker does not allow bills to come up for a vote in the House of Representatives unless said bill enjoys the support of "a majority of the majority." Here's how Hastert once discussed the idea:

The job of the Speaker is not to expedite legislation that runs counter to the wishes of a majority of the majority … on each piece of legislation, I actively seek to bring our party together … I do not feel comfortable scheduling any controversial legislation unless I know I have the votes on our side first.

The thing about the Hastert rule, however, is that it was always seen as more of a suggestion than a law, and the idea that the GOP caucus might "codify" it actually runs against its original intent. Back in April, Greg Sargent interviewed GOP strategist John Feehery, who as a former Hastert aide "wrote a 2004 speech for Hastert in which he set forth a number of things he’d learned as Speaker, among them the desirability of moving on legislation that is supported by a 'majority of the majority.'"

Feehery made one thing crystal clear: “I never used the phrase 'Hastert Rule,’ ... I don’t know where it came from. This was always meant to be situational advice, never a hard-and-fast rule.”

As Sargent reported:

The guideline is meant to ensure a Speaker’s survival over time, but it’s not absolute. “The job of the Speaker is to expedite legislation,” Feehery says, “but to keep his job as Speaker, he or she has to make sure he or she is pleasing a majority of the majority.”


“Conservatives are terrified, and they should be, that if Boehner decides to throw in with 70 Republicans and 150 Democats, they have no voice anymore,” Feehery says. “The bigger point for conservatives is that if you’re not going to be constructive and you’re going to vote against everything, Boehner has no choice but to vote with Democrats” on must-pass legislation. Adds Feehry: “It makes it harder for the conservative position to prevail.”

Indeed, there's a good chance that this move to make the Hastert rule the "Official Hastert Holy Writ Of This Pile Of Bricks We Call The House Of Representatives" is happening precisely because Boehner seems to be willing to let the House vote on an immigration reform bill whether he has the support of the majority of his caucus or not. Earlier this week, Jonathan Chait sized up the state of play precisely this way, and he cited this exchange between Boehner and ABC News' George Stephanopoulos as the essential tea leaves on the matter:

STEPHANOPOULOS: But in the end, you're gonna have to make the big call. You're gonna have to make the call on whether or not to allow a vote on a bill -- that perhaps doesn't get a majority of Republicans. In the past, you have not been willing to do that. Are you willing to do it now?

BOEHNER: George, I -- listen. I've allowed the House to work with -- t -- well, more than any speaker in modern history, to the point where there are some bills that have passed -- with a majority of Democrats -- in favor, and a minority of Republicans--

STEPHANOPOULOS: And you're willing to do that with immigration.

BOEHNER: -- and I've been criticized for it. What I'm committed to is a fair and open process on the floor of the House -- so that all members -- have an opportunity.


BOEHNER: It's not up -- it's not about what I want. It's about what the House wants. And my job is -- as speaker -- is to ensure that all members on both sides have a fair shot at their ideas --

STEPHANOPOULOS: And if that means -- if that means putting on the floor a bill that will get more Democrats than Republicans, the majority of Democrats, not --

BOEHNER: I -- I don't believe that will be the case.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But you're open to it?

BOEHNER: We're gonna let the House work its will.

Ultimately, for Boehner, the House "working its will" could simply mean that he'll take a piecemeal approach to passing any sort of immigration reform. If he's of the mind, however, that passing reform is something his party needs to do in order to enhance or preserve his party's electoral future, it may mean that he gets it done with Democrats' votes. (In all likelihood, the preservation of any "path to citizenship" as part of reform will probably depend on this.)

So, this move from the "insurgents" seems like it may end up bringing new tears to Boehner's oft-begrutten face.

By the way, Feehery made one more important point about the Hastert rule in an August 2011 piece he wrote for The Hill: "There are times, of course, where it is darn near impossible to get all of the votes on one side of the aisle. Voting to increase the debt limit is one of those times."

So, store that away.

‘Hastert Rule’ Pushed by Insurgent Republicans [Roll Call]
No, the `Hastert Rule’ isn’t supposed to be Holy writ [The Plum Line]

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Conservatives Pointing Fingers