It started on January 3, two days after the “fiscal cliff” vote, when a Democratic aide suggested to the Huffington Post that Speaker John Boehner’s willingness to violate the so-called “Hastert rule” might be the salvation of immigration reform. It ended almost seven months later, on Thursday, when Boehner finally gave an airtight promise to his right flank not to do so.
The intervening battle — over whether Boehner will violate the rule by passing an immigration bill without the support of a majority of the Republican conference — underscores the lack of trust between a GOP Speaker and his suspicious flock.
“He never intended to pass an immigration bill without a majority of the majority. That never made any sense whatsoever. But it was sensible to publicly keep our options open,” says a GOP leadership aide familiar with the Speaker’s thinking. “It’s impossible to tell how much of the vocal paranoia [from the right] on this issue was real, and how much of it was invented by outside groups looking to gin up their fundraising — but it was an unhelpful distraction from the serious work of fixing our broken immigration system and securing our borders.”
For their part, conservatives scoff at the notion that Boehner was with them all along, saying it was only their pressure that forced him to finally relent. For instance, Representative Steve Stockman of Texas, who is pushing an effort to formally codify the Hastert rule, says the principle strengthens Boehner in negotiations with President Obama and Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Boehner has shown clear annoyance when asked about the “Hastert rule,” named after his Republican predecessor, former speaker J. Dennis Hastert.
“Listen: It was never a rule to begin with,” he said in April. The two men don’t have much of a relationship. Hastert’s allies have wondered why Boehner hasn’t reached out to the Illinois Republican, and Hastert himself has criticized Boehner for violating the “majority of the majority” precept. “If you start to rely on the minority to get the majority of your votes, then all of a sudden you’re not running the shop anymore. I think that’s what it comes down to,” Hastert, now a senior adviser at Dickstein Shapiro, told me in March.
Speculation over whether Boehner might pass immigration reform with mostly Democratic votes escalated almost immediately after Boehner passed the fiscal-cliff bill and a Hurricane Sandy aid bill with mostly Democratic votes. On January 10, the New York Times editorial page hailed the moves as “Democracy in the House” and urged him to repeat the pattern on the debt limit, immigration reform, and gun control.
In February, Boehner passed another bill — the Violence Against Women Act — in violation of the informal rule.
A week later, Representative Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia confronted Boehner at a closed-door meeting, asking him whether he planned to continue using a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans to bypass the majority of the GOP.
“It’s not a practice that I would expect to continue long-term,” Boehner said then.
But a month later, on April 10, it happened again, on a relatively unimportant bill to expand the government’s ability to buy land to protect historic battlefields. Some of the muscular “outside groups” like Heritage Action had declared they would score the vote on the bill.
In May, as the Senate immigration bill gained steam, Boehner stayed mum on whether he would proceed in like manner. Every signal he gave indicated that a big immigration deal was his No. 1 priority, prompting concern among senior Republicans about the lengths to which he would go to get it.
Then, on June 11, Boehner strongly indicated that he was open to passing an immigration bill in violation of the Hastert rule, telling ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos that “it’s about what the House wants. And my job is, as Speaker . . . to ensure that all members on both sides have a fair shot at their ideas.”
Senate majority leader Harry Reid called the comments “music to my ears,” adding: “The truth is the Speaker needs Democratic votes to pass any bill that has a chance of becoming law.”
By this point, the conservatives in the House were coming unglued. The same day, Representative Steve King told National Review Online he had gathered the necessary 50 signatures to force a “special conference” on immigration. While King said he was not envisioning a challenge to Boehner, forcing a special conference happened to be the same procedure one would use to force an unscheduled leadership election.
Two days later, Boehner slightly walked back his comments, saying, “I don’t intend to bring an immigration bill to the floor that violates what I and what my — members of my party, what our — principles are.”
He also moved to head off King’s effort by announcing a “special conference” on immigration for July 10, something a GOP leadership aide said had been in the works for “weeks.”
Five days later, the issue had metastasized. In a radio interview, Representative Dana Rohrabacher warned Boehner that he should be “removed as Speaker” if he violated the Hastert rule on immigration.
That morning, outside of the Capitol Hill Club, I interviewed Representative Louie Gohmert, who had just listened to Boehner tell Republicans at a closed-door meeting that he didn’t want to bring a bill to the floor that didn’t have the support of the majority of the majority. That guarantee contained too much wiggle room for Gohmert.
“My concern is not that he will bring a bill to the floor without a majority of Republican support, but that we bring a bill to the floor of the House, pass that, and then it goes to conference, and then, not a bill, but a conference report comes that has amnesty and then it’s passed by a majority of Democrats,” Gohmert said.
Immediately following the interview, I went into a press conference with Boehner, who reiterated his Hastert-rule promise. Does it extend to the conference report, I asked? “We’ll see when we get there,” he replied.
It appeared to be confirmation of conservatives’ worst fears. Later that day, a Boehner spokesman tried to walk it back, saying that he had consulted the Speaker personally and that the desire to pass an immigration bill with the support of the majority of the majority did extend to the conference report.
It wasn’t enough. Shortly afterwards, Representative Michele Bachmann began circulating a letter asking Boehner and House majority leader Eric Cantor for a promise in writing that the Speaker would follow the Hastert rule on the final conference report for any immigration bill.
On June 27, Boehner finally said the words that persuaded his right flank to back down.
“For any legislation — including a conference report — to pass the House, it’s going to have to be a bill that has the support of a majority of our members,” Boehner told reporters.
“Speaker Boehner’s latest comments accomplish the intent of the letter,” said Bachmann spokesman Dan Kotman, indicating that his boss was standing down.
It’s not that conservatives are totally letting down their guard. Stockman says he doesn’t believe any politician’s promise: He saw colleagues who had committed in writing to vote against Boehner for Speaker call out the Ohio Republican’s name when the vote occurred.
But for what it’s worth, they finally have an actual promise from Boehner.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online.