Neil McCabe

Because the flawed immigration legislation working its way through Capitol Hill is poison to conservative Republicans, Speaker John A. Boehner announced he must break the “Hastert Rule” to drag it over the finish line.

Breaking the rule will give President Barack Obama a huge victory in what should have been for him a summer of scandal and retreat.

The rule is an old concept, but practiced by former GOP speaker J. Dennis Hastert, it says that when the GOP controls the House, the Republican leadership will not move on legislation unless the “majority of the majority” supports the position.

Now, the speaker declared the rule a dead letter and signaled his desire to pass the president’s immigration agenda by building a new coalition with Democrats.

As conservatives recoiled at the heresy, members of Team Boehner reassured outsiders that under speakers Hastert and Newton L. Gingrich, the rule was violated anywhere from 18 to 30 times.

To the Republican careerists surrounding the speaker, it is not a big deal. But, the numbers involved make it a really big deal if the GOP expects to win elections.

In the House GOP today, the “majority of the majority” is housed in the 170-member Republican Study Committee, its the conservative bloc.

One gauge of the RSC’s effectiveness is that only 104 out of 242 Republicans voted for the RSC’s alternative Fiscal Year 2013 Budget. That puts the conservative terra firma in the House at slightly less than one-quarter of the body.

If Boehner holds to those 138 Republicans, who voted against the conservative budget plan, he is still short 80 votes for the 218 votes that make majority in the 435-seat House.

This is where it gets juicy for the Democrats. Minority Leader Nancy P. Pelosi (D.-Calif.) knows how to collect and hold on to votes. If she gives Boehner a number it is solid, unlike the sand dance numbers the speaker gets from his own whip Rep. Kevin O. McCarthy (R.-Calif.).

What makes Pelosi so good is that her members know that she only asks for the votes she needs, and then once she has what she needs, she frees her members to cast the vote they need to survive re-election.

If Pelosi gives the speaker the 80 votes he needs to pass the president’s immigration bill, the 103 remaining Democrats will get a hall pass on one of the most explosive issues, where they are on the way-wrong political side.

In the last session, the House Republican leadership generously gave Democrats “cover votes” on the balanced budget amendment and national concealed carry, effectively inoculating them from two of the strongest issues their GOP challengers could use against them.

Neil McCabe

Neil W. McCabe is a journalist working in Washington. He was a senior reporter for the Human Events newspaper and for many years a reporter for The Pilot, Boston's Catholic paper. In 2009, he deployed to Iraq with the Army as a combat historian for 15 months.