Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has a commitment from Republicans to see a Senate debate on the future of nearly 700,000 immigrants currently protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in the next three weeks. But the real hurdle for immigration reform is in the House of Representatives.
It all comes down to a promise Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) made in 2015, before taking over the speaker's office: He assured the most conservative members of his conference — the very ones who ousted his predecessor John Boehner — that he would not let an immigration bill pass without the support of the majority of House Republicans.
It's called the Hastert Rule, an unwritten Republican leadership principle named after former Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert. (Yes, the same Dennis Hastert who went to prison for a bank fraud conviction related to him molesting young boys.) And it has dictated how the immigration debate has lived and died in Congress over the past decade.
Read more from Vox:
Major evangelical leader says Trump gets a 'mulligan' on Stormy Daniels affair
Robert Mueller's team has questioned Jeff Sessions. Here's why that matters
If Aziz Ansari were a college student, he would likely be expelled. That should alarm us
At the height of the government shutdown, Senate Democrats were demanding assurances from Ryan and President Donald Trump that a bipartisan DACA deal would make it not only out of the Senate but through the House and to the president's desk. By the end of the shutdown, these calls had ultimately quieted.
But Democrats' concerns still stand, and as the immigration debate gets underway in Congress, the political headwinds in the House will likely prove to be the biggest test.
A brief history of the Hastert Rule
Hastert, the longest-serving Republican speaker of the House, coined the "Hastert Rule" in 2003, when he said the "job of the Speaker is not to expedite legislation that runs counter to the wishes of the majority of the majority."
In other words, speakers shouldn't allow a vote on legislation unless the majority party is unified behind it. As George Washington University political scientist Sarah Binder notes, this "rule" predates Hastert and "reflects a decades-long pattern in the House of more aggressive Democratic and Republican majority party leaders." Binder writes:
The basic premise of the rule — that House leaders will use their leverage over the floor agenda to keep measures off the floor that might divide the majority party — has guided House majority party leaders at least since the early 1980s.
When the "majority of the majority" rule is violated, it's usually on must-pass pieces of legislation, like spending bills or emergency disaster relief funding.
In 2004, Hastert's congressional aide John Feehery defended the rule to the Washington Post, saying, "If you pass major bills without the majority of the majority, then you tend not to be a long-term speaker."
That turned out to be the case for Speaker Boehner, who, leading a splintered Republicans caucus, angered House conservatives by seeking votes across the aisle to pass major pieces of legislation — a move that ultimately led to his ouster. He broke the Hastert Rule over the fiscal cliff, the debt limit, and relief funding for Hurricane Sandy — national emergencies that threatened economic calamity and American lives.
But even Boehner used the "Hastert Rule" as political cover, to prevent contentious pieces of legislation from dividing his party and to limit the power of the minority. This includes immigration reform: He refused to bring the Senate's bipartisan "Gang of Eight"comprehensive immigration reform bill up for a vote in the House in 2013, saying it wouldn't receive the support of the "majority of the majority."
Ryan, who came into the speakership on the tail of an archconservative revolt, has tried to keep the peace (to varying degrees of success) within his party. Before taking the speakership, he promised the conference's most conservative members, who were most wary of his appointment, that he would not move on immigration without the support of the majority of the caucus.