The rule: The Speaker should not allow a vote by the entire House on a bill unless a majority of the majority party caucus supports it. This rule is not in the Constitution; it is a rule practiced solely by Republicans. When Democrats have been in the majority of the House, they have never invoked a similar doctrine.
The result recently has been to allow Tea Party ideologically driven members be the tail that wags the entire House. The Hastert rule prevents moderate Republicans who are a minority of the House GOP from joining with Democrats, the minority in the House, to form a coalition of a majority of the whole by depriving them of an opportunity to vote on bills that the majority of GOP members don't approve. The House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) does have the power to ignore the rule, but he rarely uses it.
Between 2010 and the 2012 November election, the Republicans were in the majority in the House and the Hastert rule held fast. However, the November election was a shock to many in the GOP. They lost the women and Hispanic vote, and consequentially the race for the White House. There are those in the GOP who believe that if they are ever to regain the presidency, they are going to have to pass legislation that will appeal to those important blocks.
Speaker Boehner has broken the Hastert rule three times recently, however, no doubt fearing backlash against the party that could hurt in the 2014 elections if he did not. Deals to avert automatic tax increases at the beginning of the year and a relief package for states hit by Hurricane Sandy were allowed to come to the floor for a vote without approval of a majority of GOP. Both bills passed the House largely with the support of Democratic votes.
Last week, the Violence Against Women Act passed the House without the vote of the majority of Republican members because Boehner permitted the bill to come to the floor for a vote. This allowed a minority of Republican members to join with Democrats to form a majority of the whole House and pass the bill.
Exit polls after the November election and others taken last week revealed that an impressive majority of voters wanted budget cuts and deficit reduction to be balanced … more revenue generation as well as cuts. Nonetheless, we went over the sequester cliff. Why no compromise could be reached that reflected the voters' will on the sequester is the GOP's single-minded dedication to a principle accepted by more than Tea Party members: Absolutely no deal will be struck that includes even closing tax loopholes to raise revenue. Speaker Boehner dared not break the Hastert rule over this issue and risk his speakership. Any Republican in a heavily GOP safe district would also have faced a primary if they, too, voted for the approach favored by voters nationwide. There is no profile in courage in this Congress.
The only way to crack the stone wall of the Tea Party is if the sequester creates so much voter/supporter/business community outrage over the results that any hope of re-election of a significant number of Republicans in 2014 is put in jeopardy. The Democrats believe it will happen and the Republicans are gambling it will not. Who wins that gamble will soon be known as the full impact of the cuts will be felt over the next several months.
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