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Was Boehner's Fiscal Cliff End Run Past GOP The New Normal?

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio (right), and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., enter a Republican caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.
Jacquelyn Martin
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio (right), and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., enter a Republican caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.

By letting the House take up the Senate's fiscal cliff-dodging legislation that raises income tax rates on the wealthiest earners, Speaker John Boehner answered affirmatively a question that had been on many minds: Would he allow an up-or-down floor vote on a bill opposed by most fellow House Republicans?

Until the New Year's Day vote, Boehner had generally operated the House under what was known as the Hastert Rule. Named for former Speaker Dennis Hastert, it required a "majority of the majority" to support legislation before the speaker approved a floor vote.

But in the case of the fiscal cliff legislation passed by the House in a 257-167 vote, the majority of the majority opposed the bill, in large part because it lacked the significant spending cuts they desired.

Its 151 House GOP opponents even included members of Boehner's leadership team — Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California.

That Boehner, from Ohio, allowed the House to vote on the Senate bill arguably sets a precedent for his speakership, and perhaps gives a preview of what could be the shape of things to come. Or maybe it just sets a precedent for the most contentious legislation, whose passage is deemed crucial to keep the economic recovery alive and otherwise keep at bay a parade of horribles.

Sarah Binder, a George Washington University political scientist, wrote on The Monkey Cage blog that there appears to be a new House rule book.

"On one of the most important House votes of the year, the minority ruled. The Hastert Rule (go forward only with the support of a majority of the majority party) has been displaced (at least for now) by the Boehner Rule (sometimes a majority of the majority has to be rolled for the sake of the party's reputation)."

Of course, this assumes that Boehner gets to retain his speakership in the new 113th Congress, which is sworn in Thursday.

There is plenty of conservative outrage — including accusations that Boehner doesn't represent them — and renewed calls for his ouster as speaker.

But you can find plenty of people, including Republican House members, who think Boehner will keep the speaker's gavel in the new Congress.

Speaking on C-SPAN Wednesday morning, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a conservative Republican from South Carolina, said:

"I don't think you'll see a change in the speakership. The real question is: Are the next two years under the Boehner speakership ... will the next two years of leadership be like the previous two years of leadership? The conservatives in the party really feel like we're losing the spending battle.

"We have not cut spending. In fact, the one place we were supposed to cut spending was on the sequester [or spending cuts that were supposed to start with the new year's arrival]. But that got delayed [because of the deal]. So our question as conservatives is, when are we going to start this battle over spending? We've waited two years now. We're not going to wait much longer."

While conservatives like Mulvaney are clearly restive, it appears there isn't a large-scale mutiny brewing within the House Republican conference to oust Boehner in the way Newt Gingrich was forced out in January 1999.

But Boehner's power could be tested soon if he needs to again rely on House Democrats to deliver votes needed to pass other controversial legislation in coming weeks — like the postponed spending cuts of the fiscal cliff sequester, or raising the nation's debt ceiling.

It's not universally accepted that the divisions within the House Republican conference will again require Boehner to get Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi's help in getting crucial fiscal legislation across the finish line.

Speaking Wednesday with All Things Considered co-host Robert Siegel, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said he didn't see what happened with the New Year's Day vote as foreshadowing what's likely to happen in coming weeks and months.

"I would expect the deals going forward to be majority Republican and minority Democrat as opposed to the other way around," Cole said. The lawmaker explained that legislation with tax hikes for the rich and a lack of spending cuts was terrain favoring Democrats, as he saw it. By contrast, bills that push spending cuts and entitlement reforms will be more Republican-friendly battleground, Cole said.

Cole said he expects Boehner will be re-elected speaker, in part because of the lack of a plausible alternative.

It's worth noting that Boehner never vowed that he would only bring legislation to a floor vote if he had a majority of a majority.

Weeks before he assumed the speakership in 2011, a reporter asked him at a news conference if he would abide by the Hastert Rule. Boehner said:

"I'm — I'm going to run the House my way, work with members on both sides of the aisle to decide what should come to the floor and what shouldn't come to the floor. I don't think we need to just set up hard rules and hard walls that just get in the way of doing the will of the American people. If we're open with — to each other and we're willing to listen to the American people, we'll have — we'll have good debate every day, and we'll have a healthy outcome."

And even Hastert or his successor, Pelosi, diverged from that rule at times. As the Associated Press' Charles Babington wrote:

"Pelosi, as House speaker in 2006, violated the 'majority of the majority' rule by letting Republicans provide most of the votes for an Iraq war funding measure she disliked.

"Hastert, the Republican speaker from 1999 to 2007, overrode the rule at least twice. In one case, he let Democratic votes carry the load on a stem cell research bill everyone knew President George W. Bush would veto. Hastert also yielded to pressure to let the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill pass even though most House Republicans opposed it."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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