By Scott Wong - 04-28-16 06:00 AM EDT
Conservatives extracted a promise from Paul Ryan last fall before he agreed to serve as Speaker of the House: The Wisconsin Republican would only bring immigration bills to the floor if they had backing from the majority of the GOP conference.
Now some conservatives are saying that may be too narrow an application of the GOP practice known for years as the "Hastert Rule."
"The majority should mean something. As President Obama loves to say, 'Elections have consequences,' " said retiring Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), a leader of the far-right Freedom Caucus that pressured Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to resign mid-term last year and struck the deal with Ryan.
"If the Speaker pursues the John Boehner way of passing bills, he may follow Boehner in other ways as well," Salmon added. "I think Paul is better than that."
Another Freedom member, Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), said the rule should apply "universally," not just for immigration bills.
"We're the majority party for a reason, and if we're going to rely on the other side, who is philosophically opposed to most of the things our voters sent us here to do, I'm not sure what the point is," Perry said at a conservatives forum on Wednesday. "It seems like an easy answer."
"Amen," chimed in conservative Rep. Ra l Labrador (R-Idaho).
Sixty percent of the 246-member GOP conference joined Ryan last December in passing a massive bipartisan government funding and tax deal. But finding broad GOP support on other legislative priorities this year is proving to be much more elusive.
Ryan is running into stiff opposition from conservatives in his conference as he pushes forward with a bill providing debt relief for Puerto Rico. And the former Budget Committee chairman's inability to pass a GOP spending blueprint this spring means Congress will likely need another stopgap funding bill in September to keep the government's lights on.
That could once again put Ryan in the unenviable position that his predecessor often found himself in: relying on Democrats - along with some Republicans - to push a basic funding bill through his chamber.
The Hastert Rule is named after former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who coincidentally was sentenced to 15 months in prison on Wednesday in a hush money case that involved former students he's alleged to have molested. Republicans in the Capitol are now reluctant to refer by name to the Hastert Rule, which essentially states that GOP leaders will not hold votes on any bills unless they have the support of the majority of the majority.
Another Freedom co-founder, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), suggested it's time to retire the rule and replace it with something he dubbed the "Ryan Rule": only bring bills to the floor that have 67 percent support from the American people.
Asked by The Hill to clarify his broader position on the Hastert Rule, Ryan didn't directly answer the question at a Wednesday news conference. The Speaker also wouldn't say whether he would specifically bring a Puerto Rico bill to the floor without the support of a majority of his GOP colleagues, adding that such comments could disrupt bipartisan negotiations.
"We are having very productive conversations on Puerto Rico. I believe we will have large bipartisan support on the bill. They're productive conversations. I don't want to get ahead of those conversations," Ryan told reporters.
"We need to do something to help our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico to bring order to the chaos, to give them the tools they need to get their budget balanced, to restructure their debt and to keep the taxpayer out of this. There will not be a taxpayer bailout for Puerto Rico," he insisted.
"These are bipartisan conversations that are occurring; they are fruitful. I don't want to get ahead of it."
Democratic leaders have argued that the main reason Republicans have yet to move a Puerto Rico bill through the Natural Resources Committee is precisely because GOP leaders don't want to violate the majority of the majority Rule.
"The fact of the matter is, again, they cannot get consensus in their party. And notwithstanding the fact that Paul Ryan has said they were going to get it done by March 31, now May 1, they seem to be at risk of not doing it at all," Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) recently told reporters.
"In part, this is a continuing quest to honor the Dennis Hastert rule. Heaven forbid that we would not pursue Dennis Hastert's rule."
There are conflicting accounts about what exactly Ryan pledged to the nearly 40-member Freedom Caucus in a private meeting last fall as he was running for Speaker after Boehner quit and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) bowed out of the race to replace him.
Several media outlets, including Politico and The Washington Post, have suggested Ryan vowed not to advance contentious bills with support from a majority of Republicans. But The Hill reported last October that the promise was secured by Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) and only extended to immigration bills.
"I need your assurance that you will not use the Speaker's position to advance your immigration policies ... because there is a huge gap between your immigration position and the wishes of the American citizens I represent," Brooks wrote in a letter to Ryan confirming their agreement.
Sylvan Lane and Mike Lillis contributed.