House Speaker John Boehner held a press conference the day after the November election.
“The American people have spoken,” he said. “They’ve re-elected president Obama. And they’ve again re-elected a Republican majority in the House of Representatives.”
But last Thursday, when the House of Representatives passed the Violence Against Women Act, it did it without a majority of Republicans. Only 87 voted for the bill; 138 voted against it. The rest of the yes votes came from Democrats. The speaker brought a bill to the floor knowing it didn’t have the support of the majority of his caucus, which upset conservatives such as Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas.
“Many people in conference expressed their concern publicly and privately about that,” he said. “So why would the Republican House pass a Democrat priority bill? I don’t know. It was set up to pass that way. We weren’t given advance notice it came out. And it’s a real concern.”
The Violence Against Women Act, a disaster-relief bill for victims of Hurricane Sandy and the “fiscal cliff” deal — all three violated what’s known as the Hastert rule: For a bill to be brought up for a vote in the House, it has to have the support of the majority of the majority.
“The ‘majority of the majority rule’ was more of a guideline for speakers in how to keep their jobs,” says John Feehery, who was a spokesman for former Speaker Dennis Hastert, for whom the rule is named.
Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, mostly followed this rule. Boehner did, too, until recently. Feehery says Boehner made a cold, hard calculation and decided that letting these bills pass was best for the party.
“You know, it’s not an easy decision because you don’t want to alienate a majority of your majority,” says Feehery, now the president of QGA Public Affairs. “I mean that’s just kind of common sense. But there are also times where the majority of the majority may not like pieces of legislation but they are fine letting it go because they know it is better for them to allow things to pass.”
Fears Of A Primary Challenge
New York Republican Rep. Peter King puts it this way.
“Sometimes you have to do what you have to do,” he says. “It happened with the fiscal cliff. It happened with Sandy.”
Why this happens isn’t obvious just looking at the numbers. There are 232 Republicans in the house; 217 votes are needed to pass a bill. But a lot of Republicans don’t vote the way leadership wants them to.
Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says these members are afraid of getting hit with a primary challenge.
“The good of the Republican Party as a whole is not something that necessarily resonates with a lot of individual members whose constituents back home don’t feel the same way,” he says.
As a result, Ornstein says bills that can pass the Senate and be signed by the president often don’t have the support of the majority of the majority in the House. Recently, rather than stopping these bills, Boehner brought them to the floor, knowing conservatives would vote no.
“They’ll come urge me to vote their way, but they’ve never insisted I compromise my principles,” says Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, who was elected as part of the Tea Party wave. “And that’s something I respect the speaker for.”
A New Rule?
But that goodwill has its limits, Ornstein says.
“There are only so many times you can do this without damaging your standing as speaker,” he says. “And doing things that basically bring votes from more of the other side than your own erodes your authority after a while.”
When asked whether the Violence Against Women Act vote was part of a trend, Boehner’s answer seemed to be aimed at reassuring his occasionally restive conference.
“We tried everything we could to find, to get the differences in our conference resolved. And the fact is they couldn’t resolve their differences,” he said. “It was time to deal with this issue and we did. But it’s not a practice that I would expect to continue long term.”
Maybe there’s a new rule. The Boehner rule would be more pragmatic: something like only voting on bills that have the support of the majority of the majority, when possible.