Democrats Blame Hastert for Kosovo Resolution Failure
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 1999; Page A8
The honeymoon may be over for new House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
After working hard to keep the House on an even keel during his first few months as speaker, Hastert found his low-key approach to leadership under fire from Democrats yesterday over his handling of this week's debate on the Kosovo conflict.
Democrats were enraged that their resolution to support the ongoing air campaign against Yugoslavia failed late Wednesday on a 213-213 tie vote. Although Hastert personally supported the measure, he made no effort to sway his colleagues on what he said yesterday was a "vote of conscience."
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and other Democrats blasted the GOP leadership with their toughest language since Hastert took office in early January, raising questions about whether the parties will be able to work together to forge common ground on campaign finance, health care and other legislation.
"The Republican leadership has shown an amazing lack of leadership," Gephardt said. While he said he likes Hastert personally, the vote convinced him that "the extreme right wing of the Republican Party remains in control of that party. I don't see any evidence that we're going to see any different behavior than we've seen over the past four years."
In recent weeks, Gephardt has begun to speak out more strongly against the speaker, questioning why he has refused to bring up legislation on the minimum wage, campaign finance and managed-care reform. Gephardt complained yesterday that he had approached Hastert last week about crafting a bipartisan resolution on the question of Kosovo but had been rebuffed.
"The answer we get back is, 'We're not agreeing to anything,' " he said.
Hastert, however, said he held back from swaying his colleagues on the issue because he saw it as "a vote of conscience" and reiterated his view that Clinton must "vigorously sell" his Kosovo policy to Congress.
"I think what they are saying is there is some feeling among a lot of members on both sides of the aisle of whether this is the right policy or not," Hastert told reporters. "I think people would feel easier if we actually had an explanation on this."
When Hastert assumed the speakership in January, he made it clear that he wanted a lessening of the partisan tensions of the Newt Gingrich era. He reached out to moderate Democrats and disposed of the incendiary rhetoric frequently employed by his predecessor.
Rep. James C. Greenwood (R-Pa.), who voted in favor of airstrikes, said Hastert believes that with only six votes separating the Republican majority from the Democratic minority, he is better off allowing a free debate, rather than trying to impose party discipline on his caucus.
"Hastert is right not to lean on anybody. It would be pretty bad if you had a hard time explaining to the parent of a lost service personnel, 'Yes, I voted one way or another because the speaker put pressure on me,' " Greenwood said.
But one Republican who asked not to be identified said Hastert's low-key style was allowing conservatives to dominate the public face of the GOP.
"At some point Denny is going to have to decide what he wants to do," the lawmaker said. "He can't forever play the dual role of on the one hand supporting the president and on the other hand, having his party oppose him, because then he ends up looking like a weak leader."
While Hastert stayed near the back rail of the chamber as time elapsed in Wednesday night's crucial vote, for example, lawmakers such as House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Tex.) and Chief Deputy Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) actively worked to persuade their colleagues to oppose the Democratic measure.
Blunt, who emphasized that 26 Democrats joined a majority of Republicans in opposing the strikes, said he and a few others were concerned that Clinton might have interpreted support for the resolution as a broader endorsement of using force against Yugoslavia.
"A lot of folks were working on folks," he said. "In my mind it had the potential to be a second Gulf of Tonkin resolution, at least in terms of air power, in endorsing an objective which has yet to be defined."
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) personally appealed to Hastert to start lobbying in the final minutes of the vote, and then expressed his anger in its aftermath.
"I did say to the speaker this vote was one of the most shameful things the House had done since I was a member of the House," Hoyer said. "Speaker Hastert said he wanted to have bipartisan cooperation. Where one would expect bipartisan cooperation the most is when American interests are involved overseas."
But Republicans said Democrats had miscalculated the number of Democratic defections on the measure. "I suggest rather than blaming me, they should get their act together before they embarrass themselves further," DeLay said in a statement.
Some outside observers, moreover, said Gephardt's more inflammatory rhetoric may ultimately alienate the kind of moderate voters Democrats need to retake the House majority in 2000.
"I see Gephardt making statements he could have made any time since he became the minority leader," said Brookings Institution senior fellow Stephen Hess. "He better watch it, because the country is a whole lot less politicized than Washington."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company