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  •   Speaker-to-Be Hastert Vows Civility and Unity for House

    House Speaker-to-be Dennis Hastert at a news conference Monday, where he said he wants to restore public faith in Congress through hard work and end partisan rancor. (AP)
    By Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, January 6, 1999; Page A8

    House Republicans unanimously nominated Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) as their leader yesterday, thereby ensuring he will become the speaker of the 106th Congress when it convenes today.

    The message of the day was clear: Hastert will bring unity and civility back to the House. In a closed session on the House floor last night, GOP lawmakers praised Hastert for his ability to forge consensus and promote the passage of meaningful legislation, according to members who attended.

    "He can unify the House of Representatives," declared Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (Okla.) at a news conference after the vote, where more than 100 lawmakers gathered behind Hastert to applaud him. "He's the right man at the right time."

    Hastert, who received several standing ovations, reminded his colleagues during the private session of President Abraham Lincoln's famed admonition that "a house divided against itself cannot stand."

    The lawmakers who spoke on Hastert's behalf noted his skills as a coach and that he agreed to take on the leadership post only after being pressed to do so.

    "Let's just make sure we don't try to change Denny," Rep. Thomas W. Ewing (R-Ill.) said, according to Rep. Rick A. Lazio (R-N.Y.).

    Lawmakers described Hastert as a dramatic departure from his predecessor, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). "We're moving away from the Newt era, which was a very centralized speakership," Ewing said in an interview.

    Gone, too, was the revolutionary rhetoric of the outgoing speaker. Appearing before the cameras with his wife, Jean, Hastert pledged to find a "middle ground" with Democrats in an effort to restore the public's faith in Congress. "I'm going to meet the Democratic leadership and the Democratic Caucus halfway, and I expect them to come halfway to meet me," he said.

    Even Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), a fierce critic of President Clinton, said "nothing's non-negotiable" with the White House, and praised Hastert for planning to meet with top Democrats on a regular basis. "He's already figuring out how to be speaker of the whole House, not just Republican speaker, which is why we need him right now," DeLay said.

    Rep. Rod R. Blagojevich (D-Ill.), who has worked with Hastert on the Government Reform and Oversight Committee, said he believed the speaker-designate could "work in a non-politically destructive way."

    The two lawmakers studied drug interdiction efforts in Latin America last May, Blagojevich recalled, and Hastert later helped him obtain funding for a community prosecution program in a federal spending bill when Clinton was unable to get the provision through the House Judiciary Committee. "You get a feeling that he's going to do the right thing," Blagojevich said.

    "His own demeanor and his own personality radiate civility. He's just basically a nice guy," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), a Hastert friend who helped organize a retreat during the last Congress aimed at restoring decorum. "He does not come into the job radioactive, controversial from the get-go."

    LaHood predicted Hastert would set a bipartisan tone in his acceptance speech today, forcing Democrats to choose whether they are committed to repairing the divisions that permeate Congress. "He's serious about this," LaHood said. "This is going to be a new day for Democrats. They're going to have to decide whether they want to step across the precipice to bipartisanship and civility and extend their hand."

    Blagojevich, who said that he would vote today for Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) to be speaker, acknowledged that Hastert's rise was "probably not good for Democrats politically. . . . We're not going to have Newt Gingrich to kick around anymore, and no one's going to kick Denny around because I don't think that's going to stick."

    Hastert spent much of yesterday working on the acceptance speech he will deliver today, according to his spokesman Pete Jeffries, delivering his ten-minute speech to his staff several times.

    Jeffries said that Hastert had intentionally made the address short: "As a high school teacher, he's learned that brevity keeps the attention of the crowd."

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