Republicans embrace Hastert's low-key way

House speaker's leadership a stark contrast to Gingrich

July 03, 2000|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Both are gray-haired and pudgy, but the similarity between House Speaker Dennis Hastert and his predecessor, Newt Gingrich, pretty much ends there.

The former speaker was the clear leader of the Republican Congress, flooding the agenda with a nonstop flow of proposals, some regarded as wonderful, others dismissed as wacky. Hastert brokers the ideas of others, carefully picking his spots.

Gingrich, a former college professor, can be a rousing orator, his words laced with historical allusions and futurist theories. The current speaker, once a high school wrestling coach in southern Illinois, is given to homely metaphors from rural America, frequently referring to days that begin at dawn with barn chores.

As architect of the first GOP takeover of Congress in 40 years, and later two prolonged government shutdowns, Gingrich's face became known worldwide. Hastert wouldn't be recognized outside the Capitol.

But as they approach the fall elections, Hastert's Republican colleagues say his relative anonymity and limited agenda suit them just fine. He is the anti-Newt and, they hope, the antidote to the poisonous image of the Republican Congress under Gingrich.

"They're not going to be running ads morphing me into Denny Hastert," said Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, referring to a tactic used by Democrats in the past two elections to link GOP candidates with the increasingly unpopular former speaker.

Hastert's legacy for this term won't begin to match the sweeping legislative accomplishments credited to Gingrich once the smoke cleared from his ferocious battles with President Clinton. The Gingrich-led Republicans spearheaded the drive to end three decades of budget deficits and secured an overhaul of the welfare system while instituting a variety of reforms in Congress.

Sights set low

By contrast, the new speaker - who has only a six-vote majority in the House to work with - set his sights for this term relatively low. He wanted to minimize conflict with Clinton on the spending bills needed to finance the government, enact some targeted tax cuts and win curbs on managed health care plans. He was determined to win House passage last week of a proposal to help older Americans buy prescription drugs.

So far, Hastert is meeting his goals fairly well. The spending bills are moving through Congress with unusual speed, which should reduce the need for last-minute, high-pressure negotiations with Clinton that could again embarrass the GOP.

The House has passed bills easing the so-called marriage penalty on two-earner couples and eliminating the estate tax, and the Senate leaders plan to match those moves later this month. A third GOP proposal that removes the earnings limit on Social Security beneficiaries was signed into law by Clinton in April.

And despite what Hastert viewed as a daylong parliamentary tantrum by the Democrats, the speaker prevailed on the drug benefit issue, winning by three votes late Wednesday on a measure that will allow GOP members to tell their constituents that they have done something about the soaring costs of prescription medicine.

"We're just grinding our work out, we're doing what we need to do," the speaker, dubbed "Coach" by fellow Republicans, said in an interview last week. "I think people want to see government work. They want to see a positive product out of what we do. And the less controversial it is, the better off we are."

Even so, the Democrats - working feverishly to regain control of the House in the fall elections - predict the Republicans will head home to the voters this year all but empty-handed.

"What did they accomplish for the American people? Is anyone going to experience any of these so-called accomplishments?" House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri asked rhetorically last week. "When I go home over the Fourth of July, people are going to say, `Hey, when does that drug benefit start?' They're going to be pretty disappointed if they don't get it."

But Hastert's GOP colleagues say they don't believe the Democrats' "do-nothing" charge will stick - especially because, as the Republicans see it, Democrats have often been blocking the path to progress.

"The speaker has got a very clear idea of what our responsibilities are and what the political landscape is - which is a minority party that wants to obstruct," said Rep. Anne Northup, a Kentucky Republican.

"Now is not the time for a lot of complicated overhauls," she added. "The point is to pass the appropriations bills, set our finite goals and accomplish them. You have to be very focused or you find yourself wandering off in a million different directions."

In the Senate, where Republicans often felt overshadowed by Gingrich as well as exasperated by him, the transition to the more workmanlike Hastert has been welcome.

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