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The Sausage Factory

Will the Senate Shutdown-Debt Ceiling Deal Pass the Hastert Rule?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell just announced a deal to end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. The reports are that the House will consider the legislation first to expedite the process.

A handful of members on the far right of the Republican Conference have been a thorn in the leadership’s side, pushing them to use the budget battles to reform Obamacare – a goal that leadership foresaw, and events have proved, to be unattainable.  Today’s deal leaves the healthcare legislation largely untouched, so some are wondering  what the vote will look like in the House. Will the Hastert Rule be applied, which says that no bill should be brought to the Floor unless it has the support of a majority of the majority?

Maybe yes, maybe no.  The main principle behind the Hastert Rule is that a cohesive majority will always be able to work its will.  One thing that has been made clear is that the House Republican Conference is anything but cohesive.  If the Democrats all vote for the Senate compromise, Speaker Boehner will only need about 20 votes to reopen the government and avoid default.  It is highly likely that many of the Republicans who would like to vote for the bill, will seek permission from their leaders to vote against the bill to so they will not have to face primary election challengers who are more conservative than they are.

So it is quite possible that a majority of the majority votes against the compromise.  To his credit, Speaker Boehner held the Conference together for more than two weeks while playing a very weak hand.  Had this been a poker game he would have been well advised to fold after the cards were dealt.  But, as a good leader, he did his best to strike the best deal he could.  Finally, when it was clear he could not get a deal through with Republican votes only, he really had no other choice but to allow a vote on the Senate deal or risk the potential economic catastrophe of a default.

On the battlefield, one side usually surrenders once the tide of the battle has determined the outcome, in order to avoid the needless and senseless casualties that would come from continued fighting.  As the leader, Boehner’s goal will continue to be to provide cover for his Members and give them the ability to cast the vote that will do them the most good back in their districts.  Despite all the public sniping and media posturing, it’s one of the reasons that John Boehner is beloved by his Conference.  He always tries to protect them – sometimes from the actions of some of their own.

What became clear yesterday is that there was no way to pass any legislation with Republican votes alone.  Since Tea Party Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee have said they won’t block the legislation in the Senate—which means it will pass that body—perhaps more Republicans will feel free to vote for the compromise.

Reopening the government and ending the game of chicken with government default will bring an end to the crisis – at least until the new year.  Since the fight will be renewed in a few months, Democrats might be wise to avoid spiking the football in the end zone, and the Republicans might be wise to regroup and come up with a strategy that results in an achievable goal.

Another advantage of surrendering before your losses become too severe, is that you live to fight another day.  Happy New Year.

Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research assistant. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the legislative branch.

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