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Hastert's Team Mentality to Be Tested as Foley Scandal Unfolds
Suddenly, Republicans such as Reps. Don Sherwood (Pa.) and Ron Lewis (Ky.) are canceling fundraisers with him, and Democrats are running ads attacking Rep. Michael E. Sodrel (Ind.) and Iowa candidate Mike Whalen for ties to the speaker. Even Hastert's lead over John Laesch, an unknown and under-funded challenger, in his heavily Republican district has shrunk to 10 points, according to a poll last week.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says Hastert is a perfect symbol of a hypocritical party that always claimed to distrust government power until it discovered it liked the taste.
"When it's come to a choice between the integrity of the House or the Republican majority, he's always put his thumb on the scale to protect the majority," Emanuel said.
Hastert is 64 and diabetic, and many Republican insiders think he'll step down no matter what happens in November. But he's confounded expectations all his life.
Focused on Winning
Denny Hastert was an unlikely politician, a mild-mannered country boy whose father owned a feed-supply store. He inherited a stolid Midwestern conservatism from his parents, and accepted Jesus as his savior in high school. His autobiography overflows with 1950s nostalgia, with Denny waking up at 3 a.m. to drive a milk truck, and operating on his own infected shoulder.
"I learned from experience that when bad things happen, don't complain," Hastert wrote. "You play the cards you're dealt and remember there is a way to win."
He became a teacher and coach, then led a charmed life in politics, winning a race for state representative in 1980 after a GOP incumbent got sick, then jumping to Congress in 1986 after another GOP incumbent got sick. (The designer of his first yard sign, Scott Palmer, is still his top aide; and is embroiled in the Foley case.) He was a popular backbencher, and DeLay made him chief deputy whip after the Republicans seized Congress in 1994.
In 1998, Gingrich was ousted and Rep. Bob Livingston (La.) chosen to replace him. Hastert didn't know Livingston well, so he made a date to see a private-sector headhunter. But the day before the appointment, Livingston suddenly stepped down because of an extramarital affair, and DeLay within hours orchestrated Hastert's ascension to speaker.
In his first speech as speaker, Hastert vowed to reach out to Democrats, declaring that "solutions to problems cannot be found in a pool of bitterness." But Hastert soon concluded there was no point working with Democrats. In his autobiography, he suggests he started to feel this way when he visited the office of House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and saw a "Gephardt for Speaker" sign. The relationship fell apart after a controversy over the House chaplain, when a few Democrats accused Hastert of anti-Catholic bias. "I have never seen a more cynical and more destructive political campaign," Hastert declared.
Hastert's team has shut House Democrats out of the governing process, refusing to allow their bills on the floor, limiting debate, calling midnight votes on complex bills that few have read. The Hastert Rule decrees that the House will consider only bills approved by the GOP caucus -- "a majority of the majority" -- and the speaker has enforced it with few exceptions.
"After the chaplain, he focused on winning," said lobbyist John Feehery, another former Hastert aide. "And with such a small majority, winning meant keeping the caucus together."
It was DeLay who spearheaded the K Street Project that made corporate lobbyists and rank-and-file Republicans so dependent on party leaders. And early in Hastert's tenure, DeLay whipped Republicans to defeat a resolution that Hastert supported on the Kosovo war, fueling perceptions that "the Hammer" was the real power in the House. But Hastert and DeLay agreed about almost everything else. And Hastert's influence gradually increased, especially as DeLay became distracted by scandal.
For example, Hastert encouraged an effort to oust Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) as a committee chairman after Smith bucked party leaders on veterans benefits. He angrily chewed out then-Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.) for holding up a bill full of pork-barrel projects for vulnerable House members before the 2000 election. He held open a 3 a.m. vote in 2003 on the prescription drug bill for three hours until he could round up a majority, and persuaded Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) to switch his vote to pass the Central American trade bill.
Republicans say Hastert wins by appealing to party loyalty and taking care of members with earmarks, campaign cash and other goodies. Conservatives aren't happy that earmarks have quadrupled under the GOP Congress, but they recognize that the House has passed almost everything Bush has requested, including his efforts to expand executive power.
"He doesn't beat people over the head, but he's kept them in line," said conservative activist Grover Norquist. "Do I wish he made spending restraint a priority? Of course. But everyone knows he represents the caucus agenda, not his own agenda."
It is only recently that GOP oars have started rowing in disparate directions -- not only over Foley, but policy issues such as Social Security and immigration. Some insiders think the loss of DeLay has created a breakdown in discipline. "Everybody in the caucus loves Denny. The problem is that nobody really fears him," said one GOP lobbyist who spoke only on condition of anonymity. "I think he's done."
Hastert aides say he intends to fight to protect his job, and he intends to win. After all, his legacy is at stake on Nov. 7. He'll either be the unbeaten coach, or the coach who lost the big one. Either way, he'll be the speaker who presided over an era of unprecedented partisanship, an era when winning seemed to be the only thing that mattered.