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  • Key Stories: The GOP Leadership Fight

  •   Hastert May Be Drafted for House GOP Contest

    By Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, November 15, 1998; Page A21

    Injecting a note of volatility into a House Republican leadership race, Reps. Thomas W. Ewing (R-Ill.) and Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) announced yesterday that they plan to nominate Chief Deputy Whip J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) as a candidate for majority leader on Wednesday.

    In a letter to their colleagues, Ewing -- a conservative -- and Castle -- a moderate -- said Hastert has the ability to forge coalitions across the party's ideological spectrum.

    "In our conversations with others, we find that Denny is one of those members of our conference who has the ability to reach a consensus among members with differing ideologies," they wrote. "At no time have we needed that kind of leadership more than we do now. We should not allow voting commitments to prohibit members of the conference from considering Dennis Hastert as one of the candidates for majority leader."

    Ewing -- who used to head the Conservative Opportunity Society, a group founded by Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) -- said in an interview yesterday that he and Castle had spoken with Hastert about drafting him as a candidate.

    "We're not doing this at his request. I said, 'If you were truly the consensus candidate and received support from your colleagues, would you serve?' " Ewing recalled. "He said he would serve."

    In the letter, Ewing and Castle said Hastert deserves to win election as majority leader because he has brought together Republicans on complex policy issues ranging from health care to anti-drug legislation.

    Three other candidates are running for the post: the incumbent majority leader, Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), and Reps. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.) and Steve Largent (R-Okla.). Several Republicans familiar with the potential vote counts said yesterday that it is likely no candidate will win a majority of votes on the first round of ballots.

    During the past week, several undecided lawmakers indicated they want Hastert to run for majority leader. In an interview Monday, Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.) said she would not vote for Armey and would prefer Hastert above any of the declared candidates.

    Hastert had pledged to support Armey in the race. According to several Republican lawmakers, when Hastert asked Armey on Monday to release him from this commitment, Armey refused. At that point, Hastert's office said Hastert would not run for majority leader.

    "He made a commitment to Dick Armey. He's sticking by that commitment," said Hastert's chief of staff, Scott Palmer, yesterday, adding that Hastert has chosen not to run for the post. Palmer also said Hastert was unaware of Ewing and Castle's decision to write a letter on his behalf. "He did not encourage them to do this."

    "The more I talked to people, the more I felt there was a desire to have an alternative to the people who are out there," Ewing said. "Many draft movements don't work. I think this draft movement can win because of the popularity of the candidate."

    Ewing said he and Castle felt obligated to offer Hastert's name for consideration when House Republicans elect leaders on Wednesday because lawmakers cannot offer alternative candidates later in the voting. Noting that he could not predict how many votes Hastert would garner in the secret balloting, Ewing added: "We're just hoping there's lots of Marge Roukemas out there."

    Largent spokesman John Hart said the congressman welcomed the challenge. "I think it offers another indication that Armey's support is weak and the conference is ready for a new majority leader."

    Hastert, a former wrestling coach, chaired the task force this year that created the Republican plan to revise managed health care. The bill passed the House, but not the Senate.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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