This is probably obvious to most of you, but I don’t see this spelled out very often, so let’s review this.
Since the time of Thomas Brackett Reed, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives has had almost complete control over what gets debated and voted on in the House.
The Hastert rule says that a bill only comes to the floor if a majority of the Republican caucus supports it. There are currently 233 Republicans, so 117 of them must support a bill to bring it to the floor. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they support final passage: a majority may want to allow a popular bill to come to the floor that they will nevertheless vote against.
The logic behind the Hastert rule is that a Speaker first and foremost wants to remain Speaker. The Speaker is elected by a majority of the whole house. All the Republicans can be expected to vote for whomever a majority of Republicans supports. As long as this convention continues to apply, if a majority of Republicans supports the Speaker, he or she can remain in office.
Now, John Boehner has at times applied the “Boehner rule”, which says that a bill will only come to the floor if it has the support of a majority consisting of Republicans, or
218 217 Republicans. This means that just 16 17 Republican Representatives can block a bill.
The Boehner rule must be motivated by a fear that the Speaker can’t rely on all the Republicans to vote for whomever a majority of Republicans supports. If he fears that a minority of the House Republican Conference will vote for a different candidate or even for the Democratic candidate, then he can’t afford to lose any of the
218 217 votes he needs to remain Speaker.
Updated to reflect the fact that there are only 433 Representatives right now.