Hastert to set record 'if I make it to June'
Hastert to set record if I make it to June
By Patrick OConnor
Dennis Hastert isnt saying much about his next
His staff is also mum.
The Illinois Republican is not one for premature
celebrations, and he wont 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
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.
Hes the coach, one member said. He always puts the
team first, said another. What you see is what you
get. Hes 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 Hasterts 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.
Hasterts 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 didnt 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
During the angry and uncertain months between DeLays
indictment and Boehners 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 dont 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
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
He has a respectful dominance, said Rep. Dave Hobson
(R-Ohio), a senior appropriator. Hes able to
maneuver people without creating huge amounts of
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 dont 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 Clintons 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
fathers 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
When Livingston made his announcement, members flocked
to Hasterts Capitol office to throw their support
behind DeLays 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
Clintons plan to create universal healthcare.
That fight was Hasterts 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 DeLays
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] cant pull one over on him because he knows
their districts, Putnam said. He knows his
membership to know when theyre 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
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 Speakers 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
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 Bushs 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.
Hes always cultivating the bench, Putnam said. He
isnt 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
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
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.
The key to Hasterts 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,
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 Stokkes 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 presidents 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
Hes 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, Bushs sagging poll numbers are
threatening Republican control of the House.
HES 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 hasnt changed much
since taking over the job, even though the Speaker
himself says he has matured significantly.
In many ways, hes never changed, his close friend
Paxon said, adding that Hasterts 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 youre 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 didnt want to be the principal
of a high school, and now Im the principal of the
Thursday Hasterts relationship with DeLay and his
future in the job.