Dennis Hastert grows into speaker job

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Newly-elected House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois bangs the gavel after being elected Wednesday, Jan. 6, 1999 on the floor of the House on Capitol Hill. | AP file

Facing the daunting task_and pressure_of keeping the GOP majority in the 2000 elections, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert said he has every intention of retaining his job in the next Congress.

“I intend to be speaker,” Hastert said on Wednesday.

It was almost one year ago_Dec. 19, 1998_when Hastert was thrust into the speaker’s job. On that tumultuous day the House impeached President Clinton, and Newt Gingrich’s heir apparent, Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), said he would not become speaker because of an extramarital affair.

Within hours, clashing GOP House factions rallied around Hastert , and he officially claimed the speaker’s gavel last January.

Hastert has been referred as the “accidental speaker” because unlike Gingrich and Livingston, he did not spend years plotting to get the job.

From the beginning, Hastert knew what his biggest problem would be, and that plagued him the entire year: the slim GOP majority. Hastert started with a six-vote lead, and that dropped to five because of a defector.

Hastert laid out a modest but doable agenda: to balance the budget, not dip into the Social Security trust fund and increase support for the military and education.

Hastert muscled a tax cut through the House, putting his speakership on the line. But Clinton vetoed it and the expected public support did not materialize. His “common sense” gun control measure failed. A health care specialist, Hastert could not muster backing for his patient protection legislation. He took a hit for not pushing through a resolution to back the NATO air strikes in Kosovo.

Overall, “We did all the things we set out to do,” said Hastert last November.

Unlike Gingrich, from the beginning Hastert saw himself as a manager with no compulsion to pontificate on every subject.

Overwhelmed by the job when he got it, Hastert has grown comfortable in his role. His speaking skills have improved, as have his television appearences.

Hastert remains the same modest man. In Washington, Hastert continues to share a town house with two aides. The number of stories figuring him as merely a transitional figure or puppet of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) have fallen off. Hastert ‘s tenure has been marked by power-sharing arrangements with the top GOP leaders, giving DeLay unusual control over the appropriations process.

To his credit, on his worst day Hastert remained popular with his members, something Gingrich could not claim. According to a Harris poll published in Congressional Quarterly, the public has not given Hastert his due. His job approval rating at the end of the year was two points lower than when he started.

Now Hastert ‘s biggest worry is “just the numbers,” he said. The math works out like this: There are 19 Republican open seats to be defended with about half of them competitive, compared with only five Democratic open seats.

To shore things up, last November Hastert installed his longtime confidant and fund-raiser, Dan Mattoon, to be the deputy director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Hastert has two main chores: to continue to raise money and give Republicans, as he said, “a basis to run on.”

On the money end, Hastert all year has maintained a heavy fund-raising schedule. In the last week, Hastert traveled to New York, Wisconsin, Virginia and Texas to look for money to bolster House Republicans.

Hastert is working on a House GOP election-year agenda and wants it out in early 2000, before House races are overshadowed by the presidential contest.

If Hastert is to keep the speakership, “We need to have something to have people talk about in the districts.”

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