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  •   Hastert Moves to Assume Speakership

    Hastert
    Top GOP leaders are backing Illinois Rep. Dennis Hastert, pictured at an April news conference, to replace Speaker-designate Bob Livingston. (Ray Lustig — The Post)
    By Edward Walsh
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, December 20, 1998; Page A29

    Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), a former high school wrestling coach with conservative views and a mild manner, appeared last night to have sewed up the contest to become the next speaker of the House.

    Within hours of Speaker-designate Bob Livingston's surprise announcement that he would quit the House, outgoing Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and other powerful GOP lawmakers threw their support behind Hastert.

    By early evening, members said, Hastert had collected more than enough votes to ensure a smooth succession when the new Congress meets in January. Two other Republicans who briefly considered their own bids – Reps. Steve Largent (Okla.) and Christopher Cox (Calif.) – said they would back Hastert, and there were no other potential rivals looming last night.

    Hastert serves as DeLay's chief deputy, and he has been a leading GOP figure on health care issues, overseeing the party's efforts opposing President Clinton's unsuccessful health care plan in 1994. This year, he helped craft a GOP alternative to the administration's proposal for protecting HMO patients' rights.

    At a closed-door, emergency meeting yesterday shortly after the House had passed two articles of impeachment against Clinton, the Republican lawmakers tentatively decided to hold the election of the GOP candidate for speaker on Jan. 5, the day before the new House takes office and the 106th Congress begins.

    Lawmakers who attended the meeting quoted Gingrich as saying that the focus of the next Congress would be on the 2000 presidential election and that the next speaker should not have a high profile, as he did. They said Gingrich told them they "needed a listener, someone who could delegate assignments and do the day-to-day work" and closed by saying that Hastert was that man.

    The mood in the room was one of emotional exhaustion and sadness, the lawmakers said. "This has been very tough for a lot of us," said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.).

    "There is a lot of sadness in our conference," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who presided over the impeachment debate. "A lot of people are demoralized. People are very, very sad for him [Livingston] and what he's gone through. There's a huge, huge vacuum. There's a lot of uncertainty about what's going to happen."

    Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson, who attended the meeting, also stressed the importance of a quick resolution to the unexpected House GOP leadership crisis. "I would like to see us come together behind someone as quickly and unanimously and magnanimously as possible," he said.

    DeLay quickly put his powerful whip organization in motion to achieve that objective. Republican sources said that almost immediately after Livingston's announcement, as the House began the final hours of the historic impeachment debate, DeLay was on the phone and in meetings making the case for Hastert. Late yesterday, as darkness fell on the almost deserted Capitol, DeLay's office was a beehive of activity as Hastert's supporters organized for what they hoped would be a preemptive strike.

    "Our hope is to nail this down for Denny fairly quickly," said Rep. Gerald "Jerry" Weller (R-Ill.). "It is important to show Denny's strengths so any other potential candidates would take notice."

    Hastert announced his intention to run for speaker at 1 p.m. and, according to sources close to him, by late afternoon had obtained 50 firm commitments of support and had assembled a whip team of 30 lawmakers that stretched across the ideological spectrum. The number of members who said they would support Hastert grew to more than 100 by the end of the day, an aide said.

    Although DeLay's support gave Hastert a powerful boost, it could also prove to be a double-edged sword. Some Republicans suggested that DeLay, dubbed the "de facto speaker" by Democrats since Gingrich announced that he was stepping down, might assemble too much power if he is seen as the man responsible for the making of the next speaker.

    Apparently alluding to this, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) said, "DeLay has a lot of power" and added: "I always believe power should be diffused."

    Hastert, who will turn 57 on Jan. 2, represents a district that stretches from the outer western suburbs of Chicago west through territory of small towns and farms. In his announcement of his candidacy for speaker, Hastert promised to "make a particular effort to build bridges across the aisle, not just to pass legislation, but to ensure that common-sense ideas and principles become law. There's no question that in a six-seat majority our ability to work with all viewpoints and listen to all members will be of the utmost importance."

    "His strength is coalition building," said Mike McKeon, an Illinois pollster who has done work for Hastert. "He's a good guy, keeps his word. ... He thinks he's an employee of the people. If you want a philosophical or ideological guy, that's not him."

    Hastert's reputation as a consensus-builder appeared to be especially appealing to House Republicans who were exhausted by the bruising impeachment fight and demoralized that their own leader was its latest victim.

    "He has a way of working with people and working things out," said Rep. E. Clay Shaw (R-Fla.). "We need someone to try to bring us together and get rid of the hostilities between the two parties, something that Livingston would have been able to do."

    Recalling Hastert's previous career as a high school wrestling coach, Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio) said: "Denny's a coach. He doesn't need to be a star, he makes stars, he makes winning teams. Right now we don't need a lightning rod, we need a coach. ... He'll work with everybody."

    Among those who considered running for speaker and may have been dissuaded by DeLay and other leaders was Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), who last month failed in a bid to oust Armey as majority leader. As his aides took to the phones shortly after Livingston's announcement, Largent, according to someone who accompanied him, walked to the Capitol chapel to pray for guidance, only to find the door locked. Late yesterday, Largent said he would not run and endorsed Hastert.

    Livingston's announcement also stunned House Democrats, several of whom urged him to reconsider. Other Democrats clearly enjoyed the state of chaos their GOP counterparts found themselves in.

    "There is great fear in the Democratic Caucus that Tom DeLay will not be the next speaker," Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said of one of the House's most divisive figures.

    Whoever the next speaker is, he will face a daunting task in trying to narrow the immense partisan gulf that opened during the impeachment proceedings. Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), who is retiring, was asked yesterday to assess the condition of an institution he first entered in 1979.

    "Tattered and torn, bleeding, sadly in disarray," he replied. "The road back," Fazio added, will only come from "mercy and a willingness to grant that we're not beyond just being human beings. That's who the American people send here."

    Staff writers David S. Broder, Ceci Connolly, Juliet Eilperin, Lois Romano and John E. Yang contributed to this report.


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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