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Can House GOP nix bipartisanship forever?
Jul 15, 2013 - By Carl Leubsdorf
It's hardly surprising that the final stages of the Senate's immigration debate saw painstaking negotiations on complex border security provisions to assure the solid bipartisan majority the measure received.
Unfortunately, House Republican leaders are already signaling that they plan to approach the issue in a way that threatens the chances of passing the year's most important legislation.
Cooperation traditionally has been the pattern in the Senate, where rules protecting the minority generally require carefully constructed bipartisan coalitions to enact major legislation. At times, including the first years of both Clinton and Obama administrations, Republican senators erected a solid wall against the Democratic president's key initiatives, which passed with only his party's votes.
But since Obama's re-election, as during Clinton's second term, some Republican senators have begun to abandon their solid negativity and traditional Senate dynamics re-emerged. But the House threatens to undercut that positive sign.
Its rules enable the majority party to control debate and votes on most major issues. That has not prevented some past majorities from reaching across party lines to pass major bills, though that has been a decreasing pattern in recent years. But the recent House defeat of a farm bill that seemingly had enough bipartisan support to pass shows that the electoral dynamics that produced the GOP's fractured majority require a return to a more bipartisan approach.
That may be hard, because the 2010 Republican election successes enabled GOP-controlled state legislatures to re-draw congressional districts in ways that both protected most GOP members and ensured many districts would have outspoken tea party representatives disinterested in compromise.
On the farm bill, a group of them undercut the GOP leadership by pushing through sharp limits on food stamp recipients despite warnings it would drive away enough Democrats to leave the basic bill short of a majority.
Politico's David Rogers, perhaps the top journalistic expert on the inner workings of Congress, noted that 61 of the 62 Republicans who opposed the bill first voted for the food stamp amendment. Republican leaders tried to blame Democrats. But Rep. Collin Peterson, the Agriculture Committee's top Democrat, warned during the debate that the food stamp cut "breaks the deal that we had and is offensive."
The House GOP's continuing rejection of bipartisanship is exacerbated by its determination to apply a two-decade-old party guideline called the Hastert Rule. It says bills must have the support of "the majority of the majority," meaning a majority of Republicans, to be even considered and stems from a statement by former GOP Speaker Dennis Hastert, who ran the House from 1999-2007, that his job was "to please the majority of the majority."
When Democrats regained House control in 2006, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told Roll Call, "I have to take into consideration something broader than the majority of the majority in the Democratic Caucus.
"I think you don't want to bring bills to the floor that a majority of your party is opposed to routinely but sometimes when a great issue is at stake, I think you need to do that," she said.
That sounds sensible, especially in today's polarized environment when many bills with the support of a majority of Republicans are unlikely to get enough Democratic support to pass. But that's not acceptable in today's Republican Party, even "when a great issue is at stake."
The only way around this would be for Republican leaders to abandon the Hastert Rule, because a coalition of a minority of Republicans and a majority of Democrats may be the only way to pass an acceptable immigration bill. But Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said on CNN on early this month that he wants a "Republican solution" on immigration, not a bipartisan one, and urged Democrats "to work with Republicans to get a solution in the House that the majority of House Republicans will support it."
That's a prescription for ensuring that any immigration bill that can pass the House will be unacceptable to a majority of the Senate and to Obama. It would give the Democrats a campaign issue, but this time, they really want a bill.
Editor's note: Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.