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Bernstein: Don't let the rest of the GOP off the hook

Published October 19, 2013 6:41 am

Rest of GOP at fault, too
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

By Jonathan Bernstein

Special to The Washington Post

Two notes on the limits of roll-call votes and the breaking of the "Hastert Rule" — the commitment to allow House votes only on bills supported by a majority of the majority party:

First: Reporting suggests that the vast majority of House Republicans wanted the final continuing resolution (CR)/debt-limit bill to go to the floor on Wednesday. After the fiasco Wednesday, with Republicans failing to find an alternative they could vote for — and after so many polls showing that the fight was disastrous for the party — they wanted it to be over.

That almost certainly includes many of those who ultimately voted against the compromise that reopened the government. As David Karol and Frances Lee noted on The Post's Monkey Cage blog, the vote to put that bill before the House was unanimous — evidence that most Republicans approved of what House Speaker John Boehner was doing.

Second: The fact that the votes were there on Wednesday doesn't mean that they were there earlier. When counted along with Democratic votes, enough House Republicans had publicly committed to voting for a "clean" CR to create a majority in support of reopening the government.

But those same Republicans were not willing to side with Democrats on procedural votes that would have allowed the clean CR to go to the floor, so their real commitment to their public position remains unclear.

Some Republicans did complain, on and off the record, about the strategy party members were following. Yet until the final few days, reports from House Republican conference meetings tended to stress unity, and even enthusiasm, for whatever their latest scheme was.

In other words, the term Hastert Rule just puts a name on the fact that House speaker is a party job and the speaker is, of course, going to do what a strong majority of the ruling party wants. Of course, "what the party wants" and "which way members vote" aren't always exactly the same thing.

Speakers do have some tools that allow them to influence the votes of party members, but there are limits. At the end of the day, members of Congress are independent, autonomous politicians.

We can't be certain, at least based on what's known right now, whether Boehner was following the wishes of the majority of his conference on Oct. 1 or on Oct. 16. But the evidence we have strongly suggests that he was. There's plenty of blame to go around for the shutdown and debt-limit fiasco, but any account that focuses mainly on Boehner is probably letting both the moderates and the mainstream conservatives — that is, most House Republicans — off far too easy.

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics.