Quiet technician in speaker's role

House: Rep. Dennis Hastert, due to be elected today, is known for hard work behind the scenes rather than controversial public stands.

January 06, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When Dennis Hastert was elected president of his high school class in Oswego, Ill., it was someone else -- a dynamic student politician -- who ended up nicknamed "Senator." Now, even as the Illinois Republican prepares to become the next speaker of the House, he still does not seem the sort of politician who ends up with a flashy title.

"The `Senator' was the idea guy -- but Dennis was the hard worker," said Tom Jarman, a longtime friend who went to high school with Hastert. "He always took the jobs that required organization and discipline -- the jobs where what he had to do was get things done."

This workmanlike approach is exactly what Hastert's colleagues hope will follow him into his role as speaker of the House, a post to which he was formally nominated yesterday and will be elected today. To them, Hastert is a man almost defiantly plain in an era of flamboyant politics -- a salve to a House where dueling personalities and high-publicity scandals led to the resignations of former Speaker Newt Gingrich and his anointed successor, Robert L. Livingston.

"This is a big job," Hastert said yesterday, flanked by Republicans at a news conference. Referring to the difficult task of mending the rifts created in the last Congress, he added: "I'm not coming into this deluded about what has to be done and what we need to do."

On Capitol Hill, Hastert is known for all the things Gingrich wasn't -- rather than mapping out sweeping campaigns for the conservative soul of the Republican Party, he prefers back-room negotiations and the quiet task of counting votes and aligning House members for GOP causes. Every bit as conservative as the fiery right-wing Republicans who expound on national issues, the slightly rumpled Hastert is not likely to be found on center stage with them.

In a House with the narrowest majority of any party since 1931, Hastert will have to broker compromise to see Republican initiatives survive. A protege of Illinois' Robert H. Michel, the courtly GOP leader who could corral votes from both sides of the aisle, the 57-year-old Hastert is said to be similarly focused on solid work without political pyrotechnics.

"He's always tried to get the job done rather than pose himself as some national politician," said Mark Irion, a Democratic lobbyist who has sought compromises from Hastert on health care and telecommunications issues. "He reads and he listens, and I think that he starts with an open mind because Denny's not locked in ideologically."

Others wonder if the wounds of the last Congress -- and the objections by Democrats over the way the impeachment vote was handled by Republicans -- are too deep for Hastert to heal.

"You have a poisoned situation," said Wisconsin Rep. Thomas M. Barrett, a moderate Democrat who worked with Hastert on a Government Reform and Oversight subcommittee. "First, he faces a divided caucus himself, where the far right has shown little, if any, willingness to compromise, and then you have a situation with the Democrats where you can't expect huge amounts of cooperation."

Hastert is more optimistic: "There is a common ground. There's common-sense things that we can deal with across the aisle in this Congress. We need to open those discussions."

The Illinois native is every inch the conservative, hailing from one of the country's most solidly Republican areas in the "Collar Counties" outside Chicago.

A solid voter against taxes and government regulation, Hastert voted to the right of Gingrich on several economic matters and opposed campaign finance reform. An evangelical Christian, he opposed abortion, affirmative action and health benefits for domestic partners but supported prayer in schools and some federal funding for private-school scholarships.

On Capitol Hill, he is known as the softer half of the vote-counting machine led by aggressive Majority Whip Tom DeLay, whose offices and staff Hastert has shared as the chief deputy in the whip operation. Critics charge that Hastert, once a Boy Scout, could become a mouthpiece for DeLay and the right wing. Hastert's defenders disagree: "He doesn't talk much, but when he does, people listen," said former GOP leadership aide Ed Gillespie.

From the start, Hastert was the first choice to replace Livingston. Republicans were murmuring about him even as Livingston was finishing his resignation speech.

"There was a real coalescing around Denny," said outgoing Rep. Bill Paxon, one of Hastert's closest friends, who helped organize the drive to make him speaker. "The House was voting on impeachment, Livingston was making this speech, and at that moment of complete turbulence you had everybody saying, `The next speaker's got to be Dennis Hastert.' "

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