House Republicans expect to pass a three-month debt-ceiling extension next week, before moving on to the next fight. Even if we assume Democrats accept the GOP’s retreat, which isn’t a sure thing just yet, GOP leaders may once again run into trouble with their own caucus, leaving John Boehner and Eric Cantor dependent on Democratic votes for the third time in four weeks.
In an odd twist, it’s not necessarily the case that those intransigent House Republicans want to default and trash the full faith and credit of the United States – on the contrary, many want the debt ceiling to go up. The problem is they don’t want to vote for it. The New York Times calls this “unofficial group” the “Vote No/Hope Yes Caucus.”
These are the small but significant number of Republican representatives who, on the recent legislation to head off the broad tax increases and spending cuts mandated by the so-called fiscal cliff, voted no while privately hoping – and at times even lobbying – in favor of the bill’s passage, given the potential harmful economic consequences otherwise.
Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, part of the Republican whip team responsible for marshaling support for legislation, said the current makeup of House Republicans could be divided roughly into a third who voted in favor of the bill because they wanted it to pass, a third who voted against the bill because they wanted it to fail, and a third who voted against the bill but had their fingers crossed that it would pass and avert a fiscal and political calamity.
One lawmaker, Mr. Cole said, told him that while he did not want to vote in favor of the bill, he also did not want to amend it and send it back to the Senate, where it might die and leave House Republicans blamed for tax increases. “So I said, ‘What you’re really telling me is that you want it to pass, but you don’t want to vote for it,’ ” recalled Mr. Cole, who voted yes.
Cole was referring to the vote on the fiscal agreement, but he might as well have been talking about debt-ceiling votes. Republicans don’t want to be on the hook for crashing the economy on purpose, but they’ve turned debt-ceiling votes into something ugly and nefarious.
It’s a reminder as to why the possible demise of the “Hastert Rule” matters so much to the process right now.
As we’ve been talking about this week, there’s an informal, non-binding rule that the Speaker is only supposed to bring bills to the floor that most of his own caucus supports (measures that enjoy a “majority of the majority”). The idea is, Republicans shouldn’t even consider bills if they’re dependent on Democratic votes to pass; the real power belongs in the hands of the House GOP’s far-right rank and file.
Boehner had to ignore the rule on the fiscal agreement two weeks ago, and then again this week to pass an aid package for victims of Hurricane Sandy. Don’t be too surprised if it happens again next week on the debt ceiling – assuming Nancy Pelosi is willing once more to help bail Boehner out of his jam.
But the larger point is, the emergence of the “Vote No/Hope Yes Caucus” make this unavoidable. If there’s a significant chunk of House Republicans who want measures to pass without Republican votes, simple arithmetic tells us the GOP leadership will need to rely more and more on Democrats to get things done.
That means it’s time to bury the “Hastert Rule” altogether. And if Boehner is prepared to proceed without any consideration of this so-called “rule,” it opens up all kinds of new legislative opportunities, including on possible bills related to guns and immigration.
For what it’s worth, even rank-and-file GOP members seem to agree the “Hastert Rule” has outlived its usefulness. Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) said yesterday, “I think that the majority of the majority Hastert rule comes out of a time when we had a Republican president. When you have a Democrat president that’s a very hard thing to achieve sometimes – and not necessarily important.”
Republicans never added these caveats before, but conditions appears to be changing quickly.