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Hastert to set record 'if I make it to June'

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.thehill.com/thehill/export/TheHill/News/Frontpage/052306/news2.html Hastert to set record ‘if I make it to June’ By Patrick O’Connor Dennis
    Message 1 of 1 , May 23, 2006
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      http://www.thehill.com/thehill/export/TheHill/News/Frontpage/052306/news2.html

      Hastert to set record ‘if I make it to June’
      By Patrick O’Connor

      Dennis Hastert isn’t saying much about his next
      milestone.

      His staff is also mum.

      The Illinois Republican is not one for premature
      celebrations, and he won’t test his luck this year.

      He is about to become the longest serving Republican
      Speaker in House history, according to the
      Congressional Research Service, but during an
      interview in his office last week he cut off a
      question about it.

      “If I make it to June,” he said.

      On May 31, Hastert will tie the mark set by “Uncle”
      Joe Cannon, a tough, cigar-chomping conservative from
      Illinois.

      Hastert has won overwhelming loyalty from his
      Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill during his seven
      and a half years in the job, but in describing him,
      those colleagues use the same tired bromides that have
      characterized “the Accidental Speaker” since he was
      elected Jan. 6, 1999.

      “He’s the coach,” one member said. “He always puts the
      team first,” said another. “What you see is what you
      get.” “He’s a workhorse, not a show horse.”

      Hastert himself often falls back on coaching clichés.
      The Speaker is not much of a talker in public or
      private, and his strength comes largely from his
      ability to listen and keep things to himself.

      “He keeps everything very close,” said Rep. Tom DeLay
      (R-Texas), former majority leader and Hastert’s close
      ally, who is resigning from Congress next month. “Even
      to this day, as close as we are, I have to drag things
      out of him.”

      Hastert’s silence and the rote accolades belie the
      complexity of a man who has coped with the pressure of
      running the House for nearly four Congresses. His
      effectiveness hints at something deeper.

      “This is a crisis job,” Hastert said. “You have all
      the people who are unhappy because they didn’t get
      exactly what they wanted. You just have to manage
      those personalities all the time.”

      ‘A RESPECTFUL DOMINANCE’
      Of all his years as Speaker, the past 12 months have
      been among his most challenging because the conference
      has been buffeted by internal and external
      controversy. Hastert has seen his close friend DeLay
      fall and be replaced by Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) as
      majority leader.

      During the angry and uncertain months between DeLay’s
      indictment and Boehner’s election, the Speaker had to
      assume a role with which he is largely unfamiliar: The
      voice of the party.

      Unlike his predecessor, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Hastert
      leads his conference from the rear, marshalling
      members over time to build support for legislation
      long before action on the floor. His effectiveness
      comes from listening to members over and over again
      until he and his colleagues have enough votes to a
      move a bill.

      Hastert rarely takes the lead in this process,
      deferring to his leader, whips and chairmen to build
      support for bills. But he often secures the last key
      votes. He is able to step in at crucial moments
      because he keeps in constant contact with his members.

      “I don’t think there is ever a perfect idea that comes
      out of Congress,” Hastert said. “What you have to do
      is try to bring people together so you can have a
      consensus.”

      Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) said the former high school
      football and wrestling coach “understands the
      tediousness of practice” and has the patience to sit
      through 15-20 member meetings before a big vote so
      that he knows the issues when he is called in at the
      end. And while DeLay was seen as the chief enforcer,
      Hastert has also been known to lean heavily on
      members.

      “He has a respectful dominance,” said Rep. Dave Hobson
      (R-Ohio), a senior appropriator. “He’s able to
      maneuver people without creating huge amounts of
      anger.”

      Hastert has been hamstrung by small majorities, and he
      and the other leaders need constantly to bridge the
      abyss between centrists and conservatives.

      “The challenge for us every day is to get our 30 to 40
      moderates and our 50 to 60 conservatives to be able to
      come together so we don’t have anybody ganging up and
      we can get things done,” Hastert said.

      ‘REMEMBER THOSE NAMES’
      Hastert came to power during a difficult stretch that
      resembles the climate today. Republicans lost five
      seats in the midterm election after an aborted coup
      crippled Gingrich and following the impeachment of
      President Clinton. Scrutiny of Clinton’s sexual morals
      and rancor on the House floor over impeachment led
      Speaker-elect Bob Livingston (R-La.) to step aside
      after admitting to an extramarital affair.

      Hastert had withdrawn his name from the race to
      replace Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) after
      members urged him to run. While at home for his
      father’s funeral he fielded phone calls from lawmakers
      eager to support him as a candidate for Speaker.

      Leaving the Cannon Caucus Room after those elections,
      in which Armey held his post and Boehner was ousted as
      conference chairman, Hastert joked with his top
      political aide Mike Stokke to “remember those names”
      of his supporters, should he ever decide to run for
      something else.

      When Livingston made his announcement, members flocked
      to Hastert’s Capitol office to throw their support
      behind DeLay’s chief deputy whip.

      After conferring with DeLay and then-Rep. Bill Paxon
      (R-N.Y.) and a phone call to his wife, Jean, Hastert
      announced his candidacy and won easily.

      KNOWING THE DISTRICTS
      Before his election as Speaker, Hastert built a
      reputation in the House on healthcare issues. Minority
      Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.) tapped him to be the lead
      Republican negotiator with the White House on Hillary
      Clinton’s plan to create universal healthcare.

      That fight was Hastert’s real awakening to the
      partisan tension in Washington, one aide said.

      “Denny never lost his cool in meetings with Hillary,
      even when there was considerable yelling,” Michel
      said, adding that Hastert distinguished himself by
      possessing an intimate knowledge of policy. “He always
      knew what questions to ask.”

      His healthcare expertise also began what now takes
      most of his time away from Washington: traveling for
      other candidates. Initially, the Illinois Republican
      would visit districts to explain details of healthcare
      legislation. The travel increased when he ran DeLay’s
      campaign for whip in 1993.

      During this cycle, he expects to visit more than 200
      districts to raise money for Republican incumbents and
      challengers. Hastert makes most of these trips with
      Stokke and his chief fundraiser, John McGovern. The
      trips have given the Speaker, who remembers the names,
      the issues and the histories of the places he visits,
      an intimate knowledge of individual districts.

      “[Members] can’t pull one over on him because he knows
      their districts,” Putnam said. “He knows his
      membership to know when they’re bluffing.”

      These trips have also spawned legislation. For
      example, the House approved the Child Medication
      Safety Act after Hastert and Stokke heard repeated
      stories on a trip through the Northeast about parents
      whose children were required by their schools to take
      prescription drugs.

      The trips are a grind for the Speaker, but during
      downtime he occasionally goes fishing, watches a
      wrestling match or finds an old-car show.

      AN OPEN-DOOR POLICY
      In a town where information is the premium commodity,
      the Speaker’s open door allows members to grouse and
      gossip, keeping them happy and him informed.

      Whereas Gingrich and Armey occasionally met alone,
      Hastert has opened leadership meetings to the entire
      elected leadership.

      He is a famously patient listener and rarely dominates
      discussions during those Tuesday-afternoon sessions,
      but occasionally he lays down the law or opens up to
      the other leaders.

      He conducts meetings with an air of informality. After
      his biography was released, Hastert was asked by Rules
      Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) at one
      meeting about a story in the book about when a friend
      performs surgery on his shoulder so Hastert could play
      in a football game later that week. The Speaker
      verified the story by loosening his tie, unbuttoning
      his shirt and revealing the scar.

      Hastert has reached out to younger members of the
      conference. He tapped then-Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio)
      to recruit six or seven young members to meet weekly
      with the Speaker or his staff. The listening sessions
      included then-Reps. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Bob Ehrlich
      (R-Md.) and John Sununu (R-N.H.), who represented an
      ambitious ideological cross-section of the conference.

      “He reaches out in quiet ways,” said Portman, now
      President Bush’s nominee to succeed White House Chief
      of Staff Joshua Bolten as the director of the Office
      of Management and Budget.

      When Portman was named U.S. trade representative last
      year, Hastert asked Putnam to host similar weekly
      meetings among a small group of young members.
      “He’s always cultivating the bench,” Putnam said. “He
      isn’t allowing himself to get insulated.”

      The meetings are beneficial to the Speaker because he
      can take the temperature of the conference, but the
      sessions are equally informative for the young members
      because Hastert will often explain other sides in a
      debate.

      Hastert goes to the floor once or twice a week to
      interact with the members and is as likely to talk
      about fishing or football as about the budget or a
      jurisdictional battle.

      He is helped by a loyal staff of congressional
      veterans. Staff turnover is a given for most lawmakers
      on Capitol Hill, but Hastert has had the longtime
      service of his three top aides: Stokke; Chief of Staff
      Scott Palmer, who has been with the Speaker since his
      first race for the Illinois Statehouse; and Ted Van
      Der Meid, his staff director and chief counsel.

      ‘Similar People’
      The key to Hastert’s future success probably depends
      on whether President Bush can regain popularity.
      Hastert began forging a close working relationship
      with the president after the 2000 election but before
      the result was known.

      Democratic Vice President Al Gore was still fighting
      to succeed President Clinton when Hastert and his
      senior staff joined then-Senate Majority Leader Trent
      Lott (R-Miss.) to meet Bush on his ranch in Crawford,
      Texas.

      Stokke prepared 10 questions for his boss to ask the
      governor on key domestic policy issues. Bush held
      court for more than three hours that day, during which
      Hastert did not ask a single one of Stokke’s question.

      Emerging from that meeting, the aide asked his boss,
      “What about the list.”

      “He hit everything,” Hastert said.

      In the years since, Hastert has been able to navigate
      most of the president’s priority legislation through
      the House, including two major tax cuts, No Child Left
      Behind and the controversial Medicare
      prescription-drug benefit. Throughout, the two men
      have remained close.

      “They are very similar people,” one former senior
      administration official said. “They believe generally
      in the same things.”

      Both have seemed ineloquent but are smoother behind
      closed doors.

      “He’s sort of like George Bush,” Dreier said of his
      good friend Hastert. “You always underestimate him.”

      The White House never recovered from its stumble on
      Social Security, and now, with gas prices at an
      all-time high and support for the war in Iraq at an
      all-time low, Bush’s sagging poll numbers are
      threatening Republican control of the House.

      ‘HE’S NEVER CHANGED’
      Hastert did not move his family to Washington, and he
      still shares a Capitol Hill town house with Palmer and
      Stokke. His close friends say he hasn’t changed much
      since taking over the job, even though the Speaker
      himself says he has matured significantly.

      “In many ways, he’s never changed,” his close friend
      Paxon said, adding that Hastert’s favorite thing to do
      is to get in his old truck on a weekend and drive the
      country highways of his native Kendall County, Ill.

      Hastert is still seen as an honest broker who helps
      move the Republican majority, but the signs of fatigue
      are evident. In describing his job, the Speaker
      himself falls back on a teaching analogy.

      “The biggest challenge in a place where you’re dealing
      with … 230-some members in your conference is to get
      everybody involved,” Hastert said. “I made a decision
      a long time ago that I didn’t want to be the principal
      of a high school, and now I’m the principal of the
      Congress.”

      Thursday — Hastert’s relationship with DeLay and his
      future in the job.
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