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Sandy aid passes House, 'Hastert Rule' in trouble

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The post-Sandy disaster relief is long overdue, but the victims and affected areas can take some solace in knowing that help is on the way.

After fierce lobbying by political leaders in states across the Northeast, the House of Representatives on Tuesday night approved a long-awaited $50.7 billion emergency bill to provide help to victims of Hurricane Sandy.

The aid package passed 241 to 180, with 49 Republicans joining 192 Democrats. The Senate is expected to pass the measure, and President Obama has expressed support for it.

That's certainly good news for communities that are still struggling two months after the storm slammed East coast. But stepping back and looking at the larger political context, yesterday's developments in the House may reverberate for a while.

Note, for example, that while the aid package passed the chamber with relative ease, 179 House Republicans opposed Sandy disaster relief. For a party that's often perceived as callous towards those who need assistance, more concerned with tax breaks for millionaires than anything else, the roll call only reinforces the worst suspicions of today's GOP.

But there's also the so-called "Hastert Rule" to consider. Under this non-binding Republican guideline, House Speaker John Boehner is only supposed to bring bills to the floor that most of his own caucus supports -- measures, in other words, are supposed to enjoy a majority of the majority. The idea is, Republicans shouldn't even consider bills if they're dependent on Democratic votes to pass.

And while this "Hastert Rule" has generally been taken quite seriously in GOP circles, it's suddenly looking rather shaky. Boehner ignored the tenet when passing the bipartisan fiscal agreement two weeks ago, and he ignored it again last night to pass Sandy aid.

It's too soon to know for sure whether these were isolated incidents, which just happened to fall two weeks apart, and the Speaker intends to honor the rule for the rest of the Congress, or whether the "Hastert Rule" has suddenly lost its significance. But if it's the latter, it has the potential to be a game-changer in the 113th Congress.

Remember, the conventional wisdom suggests policymaking over the next two years will be nearly impossible because of the radicalized House Republican caucus. Sensible, popular measures may be able to get a few dozen House GOP votes, but most Republican representatives will always be inclined to kill every meaningful bill.

But if the "Hastert Rule" no longer matters -- or more accurately, if it matters far less than it did last year -- this dramatically affects the prospects of all kinds of bills, including votes on the debt ceiling, gun violence, and immigration.

I don't want to raise hopes too high, but if Boehner is prepared to start governing with a combination of votes from both parties, Congress may be almost functional in 2013 and 2014.