The Violence Against Women Act passed the House today with bipartisan support. The renewal of the law represents a win for good public policy. It also marks another win for President Obama's legislative strategy as he reaps the rewards of the conservative movement's widening schism from the main stream of American thought.
Congress-watchers well remember the "Hastert Rule," a guideline created by former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert that said nothing would reach the floor of the House that didn't have the support of a majority of the majority; in other words nothing could pass that didn't have the support of a majority of House Republicans. I think that we can safely say that the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act puts the final nail into the Hastert Rule's coffin—it's taken three strikes this year and now it's out.
First 151 Republicans voted against the deal which resolved the tax portion of the so-called fiscal cliff (remember that the "cliff" was composed not only of tax hikes but also of spending cuts, the ones which go into effect tomorrow), while 85 voted in favor of it; then 179 Republicans voted against the Hurricane Sandy relief package with only 49 voting in favor; and now 138 Republicans have voted against the Violence Against Women Act while 87 supported it.
In all three cases the Republican-controlled House passed bills that had been roundly criticized by conservatives. Why? Because they were broadly popular and while individual GOP legislators are undoubtedly voting the way their constituents would like, the party's leadership has to keep an eye on the broader picture. And what they saw was that the party's base is on the unpopular side of issues that are poisoning the GOP brand. That's why the GOP is doing even worse now than it was during the depths of their shutdown-induced toxicity in the mid-1990s, according to this week's NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. So the leadership made the smart choice—to get past toxic issues while giving their rank and file a chance to vote against them.
The problem for Republicans and House leaders is that Obama's State of the Union address, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, which laid out his agenda for the year, is chock full of such items—ones on which he has the advantage of a significant cleavage between mainstream voters and conservatives.
How many more times will House leaders be forced to bring unpopular-with-their-caucus measures to the House floor? And is there a point at which conservatives rebel against it? The famous industrialist Auric Goldfinger was fond of the old Chicago maxim: "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it's enemy action." Will the right conclude that many more of these votes qualify as enemy action?