More pressure on Hastert

Speaker must run House without DeLay's leadership



WASHINGTON -- The sudden removal of Rep. Tom DeLay from the House Republican leadership last week is placing extraordinary pressure on Speaker Dennis Hastert, who must show he can run the House without his hard-charging partner and help Republicans recover from the loss of a key tactician, House members say.

The pressure is only increased because Hastert, an Illinois Republican, has faced a number of challenges over the past year, from reversing himself on controversial ethics rules to trying to control increasingly restive conservatives to backing down on his choice for DeLay's replacement.

And it comes during a difficult period for the GOP, with President Bush suffering low approval ratings, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee facing two investigations into a stock transaction, and the Republican agenda seemingly stalled.

"I just think all of us need to pull together and get through this physical year," Hastert said in a brief interview last week, adding that he did not mean fiscal year. Part of this, according to senior aides and others close to the speaker, involves moving legislation and pointing to accomplishments to show the House is still open for business despite Wednesday's indictment of DeLay, a Texas Republican.

The challenge may be as great as any Hastert has faced in his seven years as speaker, since he was elevated to the position with DeLay's help. A man who has rarely been comfortable in the spotlight, Hastert is unlikely to take a more visible role, but most friends and House members expect his responsibilities behind the scenes to expand.

"His view is, `We've got to keep this train moving,'" said Rob Portman, the U.S. Trade Representative and a former congressman from Ohio, who met with Hastert on Thursday.

"He knows we've got a lot of big, big, huge issues to deal with," said Rep. Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican, acknowledging that DeLay's indictment is "an impediment" to passing legislation.

On Hastert's to-do list are issues of spending related to Hurricane Katrina, border security, energy legislation and possibly some sort of pension or retirement security bill. Also under consideration are across-the-board cuts to domestic discretionary programs, as well as some mandatory spending programs to help cover the cost of hurricane relief efforts.

While Hastert wins widespread praise from his party for being a good listener and supportive leader, he has clashed with conservatives more than once of late, each time bowing to their demands.

For example, Hastert had hoped to temporarily replace DeLay as majority leader with Rep. David Dreier of California, chairman of the Rules Committee and an affable leader who would step aside should DeLay be cleared and seek to return to his post. Conservatives, who do not consider Dreier one of them, cried foul, and Hastert relented, elevating Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt, the majority whip, instead.

Similarly, Hastert and other Republican leaders moved quickly to approve more than $60 billion for hurricane relief, but were leery of proposals to make cuts to federal programs to pay for the emergency outlay. But conservatives complained loudly and publicly, forcing the leaders to agree to focus on spending cuts.

"It's safe to say that many of us have been frustrated," said Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican. "It didn't seem that they shared our commitment to cutting spending."

Other conservatives say Hastert's ability to quickly pivot is the hallmark of a good leader.

"It shows that he's flexible, agile and that he's listening," said Rep. Zach Wamp, a Tenneesee Republican.

But Mike Franc, vice president of government affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said it's not just fiscally conservative lawmakers who are unhappy about the growing size and scope of government.

"The conservative base over the last few weeks has grown more restive than I've seen in the last decade. You can see the intensity level and angst rise," Franc said.

Against this backdrop, Hastert is facing a public relations onslaught from the Democrats, who accuse House Republicans of creating an ethical cloud over Congress.

"The Republicans think that they're above the law. They act out of touch with the needs of the American people, and they must be stopped," said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, again charging the GOP has created a "culture of corruption" from the House to the White House.

And among House Republicans, there is already a jockeying for possible openings on the leadership team. Hastert has said he will leave Congress in 2008, which means the person who eventually captures the job of majority leader is likely to become the next speaker of the House. That has only served to increase the strain among factions in the party.

"This will sort itself out," said Rep. Christopher Shays, a GOP moderate from Connecticut, "and if anyone can sort it out, it's Denny Hastert."

While some may question whether Hastert can exert the kind of discipline that DeLay once did, others believe the goodwill he has earned will see Hastert through.

The speaker acknowledged last week that he faced a challenging road as he looked back at the indictment of DeLay, his close friend and colleague for more than a decade.

"It was a tough day," said Hastert. "But this is a tough business."

Jill Zuckman writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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