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Hastert poised to lead House - 6-term lawmaker fills power vacuum

In this Dec. 20, 1998 file photo, Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill, right, meets with fellow Republicans Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Ill, left, Thomas Davis, R-Va., and Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla. , standing, in his office in Washington. | AP

WASHINGTON — Illinois Rep. J. Dennis Hastert _called “the Coach” by his colleagues_claimed enough votes to become speaker of the House after Rep. Bob Livingston’s surprise decision not to become the new leader.

“It is a duty that I cannot ignore,” Hastert said Saturday.

The Yorkville Republican is ready to take over as his party’s control of the House dwindles to a six-seat edge. Hastert ‘s supporters said Saturday night they collected more than 120 pledges of support.

“We have far surpassed the necessary 112 votes needed to gain the nomination for speaker of the House,” Hastert spokesman Pete Jeffries.

Hastert , the chief deputy whip, is a House insider who is generally unknown outside Washington. The protege of former Minority Leader Robert Michel of Illinois became “everyone’s first choice” with the sudden power vacuum, Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) said.

Within hours of Livingston’s resignation announcement, Hastert decided to run and nailed down the support of Majority Whip Tom DeLay, Majority Leader Dick Armey and outgoing Speaker Newt Gingrich.

At 12:15 p.m., as the House was voting articles of impeachment against President Clinton, Hastert huddled in Armey’s office with DeLay, with whom he works closely, Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.) and Rep. Tom Ewing (R-Ill.). After calling his family and friends, Hastert was by 1 p.m. a candidate and started telling his colleagues on the House floor.

Outside the House chamber 45 minutes later, Paxon said Hastert “is viewed as someone who all corners of our conference can agree on.”

When House Republicans met later in the afternoon, Gingrich recommended Hastert , and no other candidate surfaced. By 7 p.m., Hastert clinched the speakership.

A Republican meeting to vote for speaker is tentatively set for Jan. 5, the day before the start of the 106th Congress. There are no other announced candidates.

With House Republican leadership in shambles, the perception of Hastert as a consensus builder was critical to his ability to vault to the speaker’s job. Another critical element was getting DeLay’s backing.

Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), a conservative who voted for all four articles of impeachment against Clinton, said he signed a letter on Hastert ‘s behalf. Shays, a moderate who voted against all the impeachment articles, said: “We think he will be fair to a moderate perspective and a conservative perspective.”

Hastert was elected in November to his seventh House term. The former high school history teacher and wrestling coach is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. His wife, Jean, is a Yorkville teacher. They have two sons.