Hastert wrestling with the end

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One leader out. Another leader may be in.

It did not take House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) long to decide. He has no desire to lead the Republicans as the minority leader. But does he want to stay on as a mere member?

No one close to Hastert thought he would want to be the minority leader if the GOP lost the House, which they did on Tuesday. That ended Hastert ‘s reign as the longest-serving GOP speaker, holding the gavel since January 1999.

“It has been an honor and a great personal privilege for this old wrestling coach to be able to serve the American people as their speaker,” Hastert said in a statement.

On Wednesday, he took a call from President Bush and made one to Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat whom Hastert just did not seem to get on with much. They have vastly different styles and politics.

Pelosi said Hastert offered to make the transition as smooth as possible, a gracious move. They did not have much of a relationship, but the sportsman respects a winner and Pelosi’s history-making position as the first female House speaker.

Hastert , the big guy, admitted losing the House was a gut kick.

“As a former wrestling coach, I know what it is like when your team takes second place in the state tournament. It hurts. And so it is with politics,” Hastert said in a statement.

He sent a warning to Democrats — whom he accused of being soft on national security — and said that at wartime “our enemy is ruthless and seeks to destroy our way of life.”

Hastert had declared himself a candidate for speaker again if the Republicans had prevailed. He made that declaration as the Mark Foley page scandal was sizzling and Hastert and his top staffers were accused of ignoring warnings years ago that the former Florida lawmaker was paying extraordinary attention to young male pages. Hastert ‘s early announcement was seen in several ways: to be a mark of his confidence and to keep his critics at bay.

Hastert just could not see himself at this stage in his career of playing second fiddle to Pelosi. “The Republican leader in the 110th Congress will have the responsibility to emphasize conservative values and reform principles. I will not seek this role, but will support our leader to the best of my ability as I return to the full-time task of representing the people of the 14th District of Illinois.”

“I am not surprised,” Hastert friend Dallas Ingemunson said. “He believes it is time to have a new face.”

Hastert will have to pack up his souvenir-stuffed office and vacate the splendid speaker’s suite. I expect this to be Hastert ‘s last term. I think he will be around awhile — but maybe not for the whole two years. How long will Hastert remain in the House? “That is an intensely personal decision,” said Ingemunson, who runs GOP politics in Kendall County.

It’s also a decision that may be nudged along if Bush taps him for a high-level appointment. The globetrotting Hastert , a student of Japanese culture, could be put in for an ambassadorial appointment.

There’s already a list of potential successors to Hastert — members of the Illinois General Assembly and elected officials from counties in the district. Hastert has two sons — Ethan, a lawyer, and Josh, a lobbyist — and given how politics is a family business in Illinois, maybe one of them will get the bug.

What does Rahm want?

It won’t be much of a transition for the Illinois congressional clout account. It will be transferred from Hastert to Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), the boss of the House political operation and mastermind of the Democratic takeover. From Mayor Daley’s perspective, it’s a seamless change from two boosters, with the plus that Emanuel is his man.

Emanuel, in a CNN interview, said he did not know yet if he wanted a leadership role. These are party posts filled by elections among the Democrats in the House.

“No, not majority leader,” Emanuel told CNN’s Miles O’Brien. “Listen, Miles, I’m going to take stock of what we’ve accomplished. I’m going to make a decision in the next 24 hours about what I want to do.”

As for another post, called party whip? “I’m going to make a decision in the next 24 hours. I’m not ready to commit.”

Watch for Emanuel to avoid any kind of a public battle with another member for a leadership spot.

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