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Hastert May Face Post-Election Unrest

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) appeared before the House ethics committee last month to answer questions on the congressional page scandal, but concerns about his leadership run deeper. He is likely to be challenged for the speaker's job regardless of election results.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) appeared before the House ethics committee last month to answer questions on the congressional page scandal, but concerns about his leadership run deeper. He is likely to be challenged for the speaker's job regardless of election results. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)

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By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 6, 2006

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's future is in doubt even if the Republicans retain control of the House because of unease among GOP lawmakers about his handling of the Foley page scandal and what a House ethics committee investigation might conclude about him, according to several Republican aides.

House Chief Deputy Whip Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.) said last week that the House Republican leadership elections scheduled for Nov. 15 should be postponed until the ethics committee delivers its final report. House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) confirmed yesterday on "Fox News Sunday" that he and Hastert have discussed that possibility. "We'll see how Tuesday goes and then we'll make some decisions."

But if Democrats seize control of the House in tomorrow's election, as many political analysts and pollsters are predicting, then Hastert is widely expected to exit the leadership stage and allow a new generation of Republican leaders to try to recapture the majority. Hastert, 64, the longest-serving Republican speaker, remains personally popular with House Republicans, but the discontent with his often lackadaisical, hands-off style is palpable.

"I believe that members have the highest regard for the speaker, his honesty, his integrity and his high ethical standards," said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.). "But the last two years have been very tough for us as a majority. There's no doubt about that. Certainly we need to have a better direction, vision and drive than we've had during the 109th Congress."

The speaker and his top aides' response to warnings that former representative Mark Foley (R-Fla.) had for years been pursuing teenage male pages is part of an emerging pattern that is troubling Republican lawmakers.

In early 2004, as House Appropriations Committee investigators prepared to launch a sensitive audit of highly classified Capitol Hill security upgrades, Hastert's chief counsel made a surprise visit to the first meeting of the auditors.

His message was clear, according to participants: The speaker's office was not happy about the probe and would keep investigators on a tight leash. In September 2005, despite growing evidence of sweetheart deals, kickbacks, wasteful contracts and shoddy work, the probe was suddenly shut down.

Critics of Hastert say the incident -- reported by Congressional Quarterly last month -- is emblematic of a speaker's office dominated by powerful senior aides that has repeatedly thwarted aggressive policing of the inner workings of Congress. Two of Hastert's top aides -- chief of staff Scott Palmer and chief counsel Ted Van Der Meid -- had been warned about Foley's unimpeded pursuit of male pages long before ABC News broke the story Sept. 28. Hastert and his aides orchestrated a purge of the ethics committee in February 2005, after the committee admonished then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) for misconduct. And there have been massive cost overruns at a Capitol visitors center known derisively as "Hastert's Hole." A project once slated to cost $265 million now is expected to cost as much as $596 million.

All of these actions point to serious failures on the part of the speaker's office, critics say.

"All of the mechanisms that should be in place and used to protect the speaker and the House itself have been abridged because they just don't want to look," said Scott Lilly, a former Democratic staff director of the House Appropriations Committee.

Lisa C. Miller, a spokeswoman for the speaker, strenuously objected to the premise that Hastert has been a reluctant self-policeman or that there is growing dissatisfaction with Hastert's leadership within the Republican ranks. "Since Republicans have come into office, this House operates in a highly professional manner," she said. "We have vigorous oversight with annual auditing by an independent inspector general."

And those audits have produced eight consecutive clean bills of health, she said.


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