Washington, as we know it, is essentially run by men and women who are not elected or even appointed to their posts, staff members unaccountable to traditional constituencies. They rise according to the needs and whims of their own special constituency of elites. On Capitol Hill, that constituency is the 535 members of the House and Senate. Toiling in relative anonymity, staffers serve the needs and interests of these members. From these fiefdoms, the young and capable can accrue power and prestige. And from these fiefdoms, they can stumble.

Which brings us to Scott Hatch, a staffer supreme and a true believer in the Republican cause. For Hatch, a slight, intense Alex P. Keaton type with a vaguely foxlike face beneath a shock of jet-black hair, there is no playing down the middle. "This is a war; and we gotta win," he says. For years he has worked for various Republican organizations. By 1994 he had plotted and shimmied and muscled his way into the inner circle of Rep. Tom DeLay, the Republican firebrand from Texas. Through DeLay, Hatch became instrumental in helping the Republicans win a House majority for the first time since the 1950s. After that he helped DeLay win the post of majority whip, and after that he served as DeLay's chief floor assistant -- "my eyes and ears on the floor of the House," as DeLay put it -- for four tumultuous years. For many House Republicans, Hatch became the Indispensable Man when they had problems, political or personal.

A year ago, Hatch moved further up the food chain, becoming executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, working directly under its new chairman, Rep. Tom Davis of Northern Virginia. They were in charge of keeping the House in GOP hands in the next election, a pivotal role in a pivotal campaign. All this for Hatch at the ripe old age of 30.

Success ensued. Davis and Hatch had inherited a $3.5 million debt. They retired it last June -- nine months earlier than expected. And they raised $27 million in their first six months -- almost twice as much as the committee's Senate counterpart and $10 million more than their Democratic House rivals. In an age in which raising money is the key to survival, Davis and Hatch were already a long way toward their goal.

But success came at a price. Along the way, Hatch alienated some of the more moderate members of the Republican coalition. He even crossed swords with his good friend Davis. And he started coming in for criticism from fellow staffers who Hatch thought -- and continues to think -- were his friends and allies.

Then there was the stomach thing. For years Hatch had dealt with severe gastrointestinal problems. He had insisted on "playing hurt," as he put it, pretending that whatever it was just wasn't there. He subsisted on a diet of crackers and plain pasta and special protein shakes. He avoided even the aroma of alcohol. He considered it a small price to pay for success.

Finally, last September, Hatch's resolve was no longer enough. On the second day of an out-of-town retreat with a group of GOP leaders, he excused himself from a meeting and hastily made his way to his room, where he collapsed. And on November 1, after weeks of testing and months of wringing his hands, Hatch took a leave of absence from the NRCC.

In a number of closed-door meetings with Hatch, key members of the GOP leadership -- including DeLay, House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, and Hastert's chief of staff, Scott Palmer; men Hatch refers to as "the family" -- decided to bring in someone new to run things. They chose Dan Mattoon, a lobbyist for BellSouth and a longtime associate of DeLay's and Hatch's. When Hatch returns he'll retain his title but will report to Mattoon.

Hatch's friends say the move was for his own good; the last thing he needed was responsibility for another high-pressure political campaign. Better to rest and come back fresh. But it didn't take long before the whispers started trickling out of the NRCC about what really had gone down. Hatch had been usurped, they said. Davis and others had grown sick of his intense style, so the GOP leadership took the opportunity of Hatch's illness to bring in an older, more conciliatory figure -- one who could keep the moderate Davis in line politically but without the tension that had developed between Davis and Hatch.

Either way, the trajectory of Scott Hatch's career offers a brief but telling glimpse of how things get done in Washington and who gets to do them. It's also a window on the life of the House GOP. Not just on the ideological divisions, but on the world of networking and whipping and winning. And the ambiguous and open-ended nature of Hatch's leave-taking is a classic Washington story of the murky relationship between power and friendship on Capitol Hill that illustrates how hard it is to get ahead and how easy it is to fall behind.

A Political Education

The oddest thing about Scott Hatch is the timelessness of his persona. You could stick him into 1983 and he'd fit right in. Or 1964. It's not that he seems old, but he's the farthest thing from a Gen X poster boy. He's never, ever grown a goatee. He's allergic to e-mail. He's not exactly a big fan of MTV; he has no idea who Fatboy Slim is.

Hatch seems eternally grounded on Planet Reagan. When he describes his teenage self in Connecticut tooling around the Greenwich High School parking lot with a "Reagan '84" bumper sticker on his Jeep, you start looking around for the Jeep.

Hatch's father, Steve, worked his way up from behind the front desk at a lumber store to owning his own construction business. One of Scott's earliest memories of discussing politics is sitting with his dad watching the "CBS Evening News" and talking about "the liberal bias" of Dan Rather.

After a couple years at Notre Dame, Hatch spent the summer of 1988 working for Greenwich-based UST Inc., a holding company for U.S. Tobacco Co., which manufactures Skoal and Copenhagen smokeless tobacco.

"Scott was a bright, attractive, hard-charging type," says Edward Kratovil, UST's senior vice president and the man Hatch refers to as his first mentor. "He had a take-charge attitude," Katrovil says. "He still has it. Every now and then you had to grab onto his coattails and slow him down." Hatch was 19.

Hatch spent a lot of time that summer helping to prepare for the 1988 Republican National Convention. UST planned to host Prescott Bush, brother of nominee George Bush, and had also scheduled a breakfast in honor of former president Gerald Ford. "He became the event coordinator and my lead guy at the convention," Kratovil says.

Things went fine with Bush and Ford, but the highlight for Hatch came when Ronald Reagan himself spoke. Hatch phoned his parents from the floor of the convention as the Gipper's voice echoed throughout the Louisiana Superdome. "As I listened to Reagan and saw him in person," he recalls, "his core message, values and beliefs helped define for me what it was to be a Republican."

Hatch's experience the next summer was a submersion in hardscrabble politics. Early on in the Bush administration, Democrats on the Hill proposed an increase in the excise tax on smokeless tobacco that would have cost UST more than $50 million a year. UST tracked down Hatch at the gym and told him to pack his bags; he was to head down to D.C. to help kill this thing.

A war room was quickly established in the office of the Smokeless Tobacco Council, which shared a building with the council's superlobbyists at Patton Boggs & Blow. Hatch describes his role as "the kid who held the notebooks for the important people." He sat and watched in amazement as Tommy Boggs grabbed a phone and left messages for five senators.

Three returned his call within 10 minutes.

"I was fascinated with the raw power," Hatch says.

With his training and his enthusiasm, Hatch seemed like a natural. But after he graduated from Notre Dame in 1990, he didn't get an offer from UST headquarters in Connecticut. Kratovil believed the young man belonged in Washington, and told him so.

"It was difficult for him to hear that from me," Kratovil says. "He didn't like it. He did not take kindly to my advice and counsel."

Nevertheless, Hatch moved here in May 1990 determined to learn the ropes. He interviewed with 15 to 20 offices before his brusque confidence finally rubbed somebody the right way. Wandering into the office of then-Rep. Jack Buechner (R-Mo.), Hatch proclaimed to the receptionist that Buechner would be missing a great opportunity if he didn't hire him. Lonnie Taylor, then Buech-ner's chief of staff, overheard.

"He was cocky, he was confident, he knew politics," says Taylor, now head of congressional and public affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "He was very blunt about what he had to say -- it might offend other people, but I liked him. I found a job for him."

It didn't last long. Buechner was one of the few incumbents defeated that November. Afterward, Taylor was recruited by the Bush administration to work for the General Services Administration. He brought Hatch with him as his confidential assistant.

Though he and Taylor established what remains today a formidable friendship and alliance, Hatch found work at the GSA debilitating. The government paper pushers who made up the massive bureaucracy looked at their work as just a job -- they would leave promptly at 5 p.m. Some of the Bush political appointees were even worse.

"It reaffirmed my disdain for big government and political appointees who didn't stand for anything but power," Hatch recalls.

But the real pain came with his next gig, in 1992, when Hatch went to Ohio to work for Lake County Commissioner Robert Gardner, running for an open congressional seat. Hatch quickly determined that he and the candidate did not see eye to eye. Regardless, Hatch worked 20 hours a day, seven days a week. One day in late summer, he collapsed in the middle of a meeting and was rushed to the hospital. He spent the next two months in and out of the hospital with an intestinal disorder. He lost 30 pounds.

When Hatch returned to the campaign that October, he and Gardner quickly agreed to go their separate ways. On Election Day, Gardner lost.

That December, Hatch -- sickly, scrawny and jobless -- returned to Washington, where he was competing with "6,000 unemployed Bushies running around looking for work."

These were Hatch's darkest days. His health was shot. He was living out of a suitcase, crashing at a friend's apartment. He reluctantly took some cash from his folks rather than go on unemployment. This was not how things were supposed to go for a boy wonder.

Taylor, at the Chamber of Commerce, hooked him up with a job in his office as a policy analyst in the lobbying department. But Hatch -- like so many conservatives -- found the chamber under Bill Archey "squishy on the issues and in bed with" the new Clinton administration. Hatch was disappointed and deflated.

It was 1993. Bill Clinton was president. Democrats controlled the House and Senate. Was there anything or anyone a Republican like Scott Hatch could believe in?

Revolution and Its Malcontents

At the same time, the Republican revolution was beginning to percolate. Rep. Bill Paxon (N.Y.) had taken over the NRCC. Perhaps even more significant, DeLay had been handed the leadership of an NRCC fund-raising group called the House Council.

Established as a way for the NRCC to reach out to the business community, the council was the perfect vehicle for DeLay, who turned it into an all-purpose political operation. Part of his new team was assigned to watch House races, tell him which were competitive and where he could make a difference.

Paxon hired Grace Wiegers as finance director of the NRCC, which was then not only in debt, but disarray. Searching for a young go-getter to raise cash for the House Council, she found Hatch through the GOP grapevine.

When Wiegers met Hatch, she was impressed. Though he can be disconcertingly confident and headstrong, he can also be amusing and self-deprecating. For all his red-meat conservatism, he's not didactic or dogmatic. The fact that he's forthright makes his compliments and gestures of friendship seem all the more genuine.

Why should he go to the NRCC? Hatch asked bluntly. Everyone knew it was a mess.

"She sold me on doing it for the good of the party," Hatch recalls. "For the good of the team. She told me we were going to turn the place around."

Hatch resigned from the chamber and set to work. He overhauled the operation, working closely with DeLay and the others on the NRCC finance team. They set up breakfast after breakfast after breakfast, like they were running an IHOP, between Republican House members and the members of the business community writing them checks. There were also a series of dinners and receptions based on specific issues, and events based around specific legislative committees.

Having fostered increased communication, Hatch found it much easier to raise cash. In the year before DeLay and his new squad had come in to run things, the House Council had raised about half a million dollars. With the new team, the House Council raised $1.4 million in just 10 months.

Soon it became a running joke. "Every time DeLay saw me, he'd associate me with a check coming in," Hatch says.

It wasn't long before Hatch was doing more for DeLay than just raising money. "Scott was very aggressive -- particularly as a fund-raiser, and that got my attention," DeLay says. "He aggressively pushed himself into our inner circle and aggressively went to work on our campaign" to win the House.

DeLay spent 1994 traveling the country, stumping for Republicans, giving them money and support and whatever else they needed. "The greatest thing that Tom DeLay ever taught me is that this city is built on personal relationships," Hatch says.

"We were a resource for the candidates," DeLay says. "All the way down to understanding what they were going through, getting inside them, building those relationships. We sent the campaign staffs these CARE packages put together by some Republican women's clubs. When you're in the heat of a campaign, you think nobody loves you, then you get this really neat package full of trinkets, office supplies, neat little Texas things, funny bumper stickers. It was something to lighten up the day, something that makes you feel good."

After the Republicans won the House, DeLay began his campaign to become majority whip. Hatch didn't wait for an invitation to join the campaign.

"He's so aggressive, he forced himself into my whip race," DeLay says. "But he was unbelievable. He worked 24 hours a day."

In the December 1994 GOP leadership elections, DeLay won on the first ballot against Rep. Bill McCollum (Fla.) and one of Speaker Newt Gingrich's best friends, then-Rep. Bob Walker (Pa.). DeLay won overwhelmingly among the 73 freshmen.

Suddenly, Scott Hatch had a very powerful patron.

`Full-Service Operation'

Running a minority whip operation is a relatively simple task -- basically, all you can do is obstruct, not legislate. Running a majority whip operation, which the Republicans hadn't done in almost half a century, is much tougher.

DeLay's team had to build the whole thing from scratch. "The Democrats took every . . . piece of furniture [from their whip offices] that wasn't nailed down," Hatch recalls. DeLay and his team created something that proved effective.

Democrats paint DeLay as an arm-twisting, heartless SOB whose nickname -- "The Hammer" -- stems from his talent for intimidation. But, while DeLay can be curt and occasionally rude, his power owes much more to his efforts to provide a warm and fuzzy and, above all, helpful dugout for his team.

"It's the opposite" of intimidation, says Rep. Dave Camp, a Michigan conservative with the agreeable mien of a small businessman. Hammering people "doesn't work around here, for one thing. If you're going to be successful around here, you better develop some close relationships. That's how you get things done."

"It's about being a resource for the [members], all the way down to understanding what they're going through," DeLay says. "It's about getting inside them, it's about building those relationships so they not only feel comfortable with me as a person, but me as a leader."

The phrase that all of the members of the DeLay team use is "full- service operation." This can entail something as innocuous as a place to chill. "Some of those late votes on Thursday or Friday nights, there's really no place for members to go, so you often go to the whip office and have pizzas," says Camp. "It's a place for members to just hang out."

Or it can be more substantial. Need money for your reelection? Talk to that staffer, he'll put you in touch with the K Street crowd. Need legal advice? DeLay's leadership political action committee, ARMPAC, has counsel on retainer. Need cover for a tough vote? DeLay has two Appropriations Committee staffers in the whip's office right over there -- step right up and get yourself a dam.

"We don't provide everything for them," says Ed Buckham, DeLay's former chief of staff, "but we try."

DeLay himself is there for members in more personal dire straits. If a member is having problems with his marriage, DeLay -- who gives GOP freshmen copies of a book by James Dobson on the importance of priorities -- may counsel the congressman himself. They may pray together. He may put him in touch with a member of the clergy. Or the bar.

The list of problems for which members turn to DeLay for support "runs the gamut," says a lobbyist from the inner circle. From running out of office supplies, "to affairs with males and females, anything."

Hatch was a fast learner. During his four years under DeLay, he came to know most of the members: what made them tick, whom they admired and whom they loathed. Whether the conversation was about Notre Dame football, a daughter's ballet recital, a wife's birthday gift, he knew what to say.

"Members of Congress are always under attack," Hatch says. "People always want things from them." He didn't. "I was a floor staffer," he says. "I was there to serve them."

That he was young, and looked younger, didn't hurt any. That he would go out of his way to help them didn't hurt any, either. Nor did the fact that he seemed very good at knowing his place, at never trying to leap over the Berlin Wall that separates staffer from member.

It was in this hazy world of forthright deference that Hatch seemed to find his niche. He could shoot the breeze with members, but he was quite skilled at turning the conversation back to the members' favorite subject: themselves.

Rep. John Kasich (R-Ohio), for instance, who calls Hatch "a protege," doesn't know how old he is. Rep. James Rogan (R-Calif.), who is one of Hatch's favorite people in the world, asks if he has a wife or children. "He's always so focused on my life, my wife, my kids, my district," Rogan says. "I never get much of a chance to find out about him."

It was Hatch's intimate knowledge of members' interests and needs that allowed him to become, at times, their best advocate. In the summer of 1996, Susan Hirschmann recalls, her then-boss, Rep. Van Hilleary (R-Tenn.), was futilely fighting a proposal by the Tennessee Valley Authority to impose a $1,000 charge on the roughly 60,000 dock-owners on TVA-managed lakes. Hilleary was "trying to get legislation in a bill to prohibit it, and [then-Rep.] Jimmy Quillen" -- a fellow Tennessee Republican and chairman of the TVA Caucus -- "had blocked all of his efforts to put it in." Hatch and others on the DeLay team intervened, and had the Hilleary legislation inserted into a supplemental bill that was passed on a late-night voice vote.

"That was a big deal to Van's district," Hirschmann says. "His delegation didn't help him, but Tom DeLay and his team did."

DeLay says Hatch became an integral part of the team. "Not only was Scott key to letting me know what was going on in the legislative process," DeLay says, "but also what members were thinking. He developed a level of trust with the members. They could ask him what the scoop was, what was happening. They gained confidence in his political savvy."

Before the 1994 elections, Hatch started charting House races across the country. Using the classic whip scale of 1 to 5, he would rate each candidate's chances. One was someone in serious trouble. Two was a battleground. Three meant competitive -- "on a bad night, we might lose," Hatch says. Four was a race to keep an eye on. Five was no problem.

Hatch's charts caught the eye of Rep. Tom Davis, a fellow political junkie. They became close friends -- a friendship, like so many of the others Hatch forged with House members, based on Hatch's skill in preserving and protecting the interests of the congressman.

"Scott made a point of knowing my district better than I did, both politically and geographically," says Rogan, whose Southern California district is one of the more competitive in the country. "He was always jumping on me for any miscues. He always wanted to know how many times I'd been back to the district in the past month -- and no matter what my answer was, it was never enough. He helped me raise money, he would make sure he knew the people on my staff, he'd make sure I had a good campaign staff, good constituent outreach, no dead weight. It gave a freshman like myself just a huge degree of comfort."

Hatch seemed to live on the floor of the House. Other than a serious relationship with a young woman that ended last summer -- and a hobby shooting clay pigeons -- his life consisted entirely of GOP House minutiae. His friends in Congress would tell him to take a moment to stop and smell the roses, but to little avail.

Still, they needed him as much as he needed them. Rogan says there were plenty of times when he understood what a bill meant legally, "but I didn't understand the motivation of the author bringing it to the floor. So I'd go up to Scott and say, `Why is he or she doing this? What's the real dynamic going on here?' And Scott would rattle off the bill's complete procedural history, predating my time in Congress. Or he'd share with me, `This is the result of somebody having a grievance with the leadership,' or, `This person is in a tough district and is trying to reach out to the agricultural community because a vote he cast in the past got him into big trouble.'

"He'd provide the stuff not in the briefing papers, the why of the legislation rather than just the what."

And sometimes, when the troops got rebellious and the votes got tight, he would help DeLay drop the Hammer.

Whipping: Theory and Practice

During his four years as Tom DeLay's eyes and ears, Hatch got used to fielding late-night phone calls from members of Congress at his underutilized Arlington town house. They phoned to deliver a message to DeLay or to shoot the breeze or chuckle or complain. They gave information and received information.

On Saturday, May 17, 1997, the calls were coming in at an alarming rate. After months of cobbling together a balanced budget agreement with the White House, the GOP leadership's compromise was being threatened by Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), the influential chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. What ensued is a textbook case of legislative whipping.

There's whipping as depicted in political science seminars in ivy-covered classrooms: the concept of maintaining attendance and party discipline. There's whipping in practice -- legends like Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn browbeating and arm-twisting with fierce abandon.

And then there's the DeLay way. While DeLay no doubt relies on a certain degree of coercion, he also uses a world of nuance. This is where whipping can become an art form, and none of it would be possible without staffers like Hatch.

In a moment of misjudgment, Gingrich had told Shuster that he could offer a substitute amendment to the balanced budget agreement. Shuster's proposal would have added $12 billion in various projects scattered throughout congressional districts all over the land. It would have blown up the budget agreement.

No one in the GOP leadership took Shuster's amendment very seriously. But over the weekend, back in their home districts, members of Congress started receiving phone calls from Shuster, his Democratic counterpart Rep. James Oberstar from Minnesota, and others on the 73-member committee. These calls were augmented by lobbyists from what transportation committee staff director Jack Schenendorf calls "a large coalition of individuals who represent cities, business interests and labor."

Within minutes of this effort being launched, Hatch was alerted. "You guys should know, Shuster's people are really working this," one congressman told him.

By the time Congress reconvened the following Tuesday, DeLay knew what was going on. Hatch and Hastert's aide Scott Palmer had reviewed a list of members and concluded that at least 40 Republicans were willing to defect. Shuster's amendment might actually pass.

By 4 p.m., the GOP whips had started to work.

The first step was to identify the magnitude of the problem. They started printing out whip cards, ranking members from 1 to 5 on their support -- 1 being a definite yes, 5 being a definite no. The cards were handed out to the 16 deputy whips and the 40 regular whips, each of whom had five or so members assigned to them.

The whips fanned out to feel out their assigned members, learn where they ranked on the 1-to-5 chart. To gather the members under one roof, the leadership started calling votes, sounding the bells to get members from their offices to the floor for largely procedural motions. A normal whip count might take a few days. This one took two hours.

When the cards started coming back, the leadership turned out to be in worse shape than Hatch and Palmer had originally thought. Shuster's amendment looked like it was up by about 70 votes.

The hard work began. Like fighter jets leaving the aircraft carrier, the whips scattered throughout the Capitol. They had just a few hours to persuade more than 70 representatives to change their minds about a bill that would bring projects into their districts and grateful fund-raisers into their sights. The first key task was to assign the whippings. That was where Hatch shone.

"Hatch has really good instincts about who should whip whom," Palmer says. "After somebody comes back and says that Congressman `Smith' leans no or leans yes or is somewhere other than where we want him to be, then you gotta assign someone to go back and talk to him again. That's where there's an art to whipping. Scott always had good ideas about that, knowing these people well."

Gingrich cleared his schedule and the DeLay people began shuttling members into his office. What would it take? A group of Western Republicans was excited about some of the funding for dams and water proj-ects that Shuster had promised. A cluster of Northeastern Republicans told Gingrich that the Shuster amendment provided funding for much-needed roadways and rail projects.

Some members would hide from DeLay, or not take his phone calls. Staffers like Hatch and Palmer were charged with seeking them out. They'd find a member, tell him that Gingrich was waiting to talk to him. Then they'd escort him to the speaker's office.

It went on like this all night. Members hunkered down in DeLay's office, sleeves rolled up, sitting at staffers' desks making phone calls; pizza boxes were stacked throughout the room.

At 9 p.m., the leadership was down by maybe 40 votes. Shuster and his people were whipping, too, but, according to Schenendorf, they didn't stand a chance against the combined forces of the GOP leadership and the Clinton administration. "They used all of the apparatus of the leadership, and all of the influence of both the leadership and the administration," he says. "We were playing on their turf."

Shuster took to the floor. "Make no mistake about it," he said. "If we do not have this very modest $12 billion increase, $12 billion in a $2.9 trillion budget, one-third of 1 percent, if we do not have it, we are not going to have even the beginnings of adequate funds to do the things that are so necessary such as rebuilding our interstate, rebuilding our deficient bridges, our transit systems."

By midnight, the whips had cut the lead down to about 20 votes.

Kasich came to the floor. "This is not about roads," he said. "This is about a team. It is about a bunch of people who got sent by their troops to go and try to bring something back that could put us together for once in this House."

By 1 a.m., the whip counts still showed Shuster's side up by maybe a dozen votes. Gingrich, House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Tex.) and DeLay stood in the corner behind the rail. They were running out of procedural votes to call. Armey and Gingrich turned to DeLay. "Well?" they asked.

It was the moment of truth. "We were down a dozen votes, but the question at that point is momentum," Hatch recalls. "So DeLay nodded with a pause and a look of careful thought, as if he was adding the votes in his head. He said, `Let's go for it.' "

Every Democrat had voted. The floor was chaos. More than 300 members hovered. Some 20-odd Republicans were waiting to see what happened before they cast their ballot.

The vote clock ticked down to 0:00. There's usually a buffer zone of two minutes before the gavel comes down. The whips weren't sure it would be enough.

Up at the front of the floor, Hatch sat at the leadership desk, worked the computer, shouting out names of targets. Who hadn't voted? Who had not voted the way he said he would?

DeLay paced nervously behind him, looking over his shoulder. Whips and members of the leadership scanned the floor looking for the vulnerable ones, their heads looking left then right then left as if they were at Wimbledon.

Hatch would see a sought-after member and he'd jump over chairs to point him out to a whip. There he is! The burly Palmer would -- respectfully -- barrel through the crowd.

Two minutes extended to five and then stretched to 10. Democrats started calling foul. This was ridiculous! But soon the whips knew they had it. The gavel came down.

The vote came in. Shuster's amendment lost 216 to 214. Five members didn't vote.

"It was clear to everybody that the amendment would have passed had members been allowed to vote their consciences," Schenendorf says. "Only the leadership's arm-twisting, leg-breaking, whatever you want to call it, turned things around at the last minute."

Hatch helped save more than the budget bill. A few months later, he and his fellow staffers helped save DeLay's job. The congressman was one of several GOP leaders who signaled to House rebels that he was amenable to a move to oust Gingrich as speaker. When the coup was prematurely made public, most of the leaders -- including Armey, John Boehner of Ohio and Paxon -- denied any knowledge. They lost credibility. Boehner and Paxon lost their leadership positions. And Armey has never fully recovered.

Some of DeLay's staff counseled him to follow Armey's lead and deny everything. Buckham and Hatch advised differently. "The concern is not so much with what happened anymore," Hatch told DeLay about the rank-and-file House Republicans. "They just want someone involved to tell them the truth."

DeLay hesitated. But in the end he took Buckham and Hatch's advice. He confessed his involvement before a closed GOP conference and apologized. He got a thunderous ovation.

"DeLay was going down the drain," says a lobbyist from his inner circle. "To this day, people can tell you word for word what he said. He admitted his role, and they respected him greatly for that. And that was Scott."

DeLay acknowledges Hatch's role. "When we were trying to decide what to do, his instincts were dead on: `You tell the truth.' That's what we did."

Tom After Tom

After four years of counting heads, Hatch was getting both exhausted and antsy. He wanted a new challenge.

Hatch was contemplating his next move when Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.) strode to the floor of the House in December 1998 and stunned everyone by resigning from Congress. Which meant Hatch had a new assignment: help get DeLay's best buddy and chief deputy Dennis Hastert elected speaker.

DeLay had thought about running himself, had even sought the advice of the Lord, but in the end everyone agreed that Hastert's rumpled, moderately tempered, teddy bear manner would be better suited to the job. And so the team got to work. Any other representative thinking of running didn't stand the remotest chance. Hatch took Hastert by the arm and marched him from office to office to secure committed votes. Meanwhile, DeLay got on a plane for Texas to show that this was Hastert's campaign, not his. By the time he arrived in Dallas, Hastert's majority had been sewn up.

Hatch himself managed the other race, to elect his friend Tom Davis as head of the NRCC. The two of them had bonded for years over campaign esoterica. "We would compare trends and megatrends," Davis says. He was particularly impressed with the fact that "Scott was the only guy up here who didn't think we were going to win seats [in November 1998]. The whole leadership was predicting a 10-to-15-seat gain."

Despite the fact that Davis's positions on abortion rights, gun control and the government shutdown were far to his left, DeLay -- at Hatch's urging -- made 50 or so phone calls on Davis's behalf. The Virginia Republican decisively beat the incumbent NRCC chairman, Rep. John Linder (Ga.). Davis then offered the job of executive director to Hatch. "He put it together and masterminded my campaign," Davis says.

"If it wasn't for Scott Hatch, I don't think Davis would have won the race," Kasich says.

Davis and Hatch divided their responsibilities so that Davis concentrated on candidate recruitment while Hatch shook the money tree. "I think you'd have to go back to the mid-1980s to find an NRCC that's as good as the current one," says Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report.

Not everyone felt that way. One of those who didn't was Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican of moderate views and maverick ways. When Hatch was DeLay's floor aide, he'd made clear his feelings that Shays, by constantly going his own way, had threatened the GOP leadership's ability to move forward its agenda. And there was a personal dimension to the Hatch-Shays animus: Greenwich, Hatch's home town, was in the heart of Shays's district. So the six-term representative was Hatch's own congressman.

Connecticut is a small state more than just geographically. When Hatch had temporarily relocated there in 1998 to work on a local congressional race, it wasn't long before Shays heard that Hatch was talking trash about him, that he was telling people that he'd love to see someone challenge Shays in the Republican primary in 2000. Shays tried to ignore it.

But once Hatch became the NRCC's executive director, Shays felt he could no longer ignore him. When Hatch called at Davis's behest seeking to mend fences, the two men met.

It didn't go well. After they pledged to try to work together, Hatch observed aloud that a strong conservative challenger could give Shays a serious primary contest in 2000. Hatch thought he was offering to help Shays, but the congressman heard Hatch telling him that he wasn't conservative enough -- and he thought he heard a veiled threat that Hatch could arrange his defeat.

"I know you can, Scott," Shays replied in the soft-spoken voice that is as much a part of his style as his owlish glasses and thinning hair.

Last May Hatch phoned about another characteristically independent Shays action. As coauthor of a high-profile campaign finance bill to eliminate "soft money" contributions, Shays was publicly mulling whether to buck the GOP House leadership by signing a petition to force the bill onto the floor for a vote.

I hope you don't sign the petition, Hatch told him. The bill will hurt Republicans. Hatch hoped there could be some sort of compromise. He was worried Shays's move could hurt Hastert, the new speaker.

Hatch saw his phone call as a friendly, frank conversation. Shays saw it as yet another threat, and a further indication of how Scott Hatch conducted business. It grated on Shays. Staffers were supposed to know their bounds, and not supposed to threaten members. Maybe Scott Hatch had forgotten his role.

`I'll Shake It'

One late night last July, Hatch was making his way to the dome to meet with Hastert when suddenly he grew very, very cold.

He had been working very hard that week, even for him, and hadn't had dinner that night. Maybe he was coming down with a cold. "I'll shake it," he thought to himself.

The next morning, however, it became clear he couldn't. He phoned a member of the team of physicians he'd been amassing since his 1992 hospitalization. After Hatch described the gastrointestinal meltdown he was experiencing, his doctor ordered him to the Arlington Hospital emergency room. They strapped him in, ran wires in and out of his body, ran tests and stuck IVs into his arms. After a full day in the ER, Hatch made his way home. One of his staffers had faxed him a list of 70 to 90 phone calls to make.

"I'll get to that later," Hatch thought to himself as he hurled the call sheets onto the table and his body onto the couch. Then he realized he wasn't putting work first -- odd behavior for him.

It didn't last long. Hatch worked from home for a week or so -- his gut was still behaving in all sorts of disconcerting and capricious ways -- but he resumed ignoring the pain.

Then in September, he was at the small retreat with top GOP strategists when the next wave hit. It was there that Hatch collapsed. And his colleagues were scared.

One told him, "Looking out for the team is great, Scott, but it's not much use if you die in the process."

He stayed at home for two to three weeks, sleeping 18 hours a day, subsisting on Gatorade and toast. He tried to go back to work, putting in half-days, but he just wasn't there anymore. Colleagues called him, telling him to stop and take a break.

Eventually he decided they were right.

The NRCC would be fine, they all told him. DeLay called Hatch the day before the announcement of his leave of absence to tell him he'd made the right decision.

He told friends he was taking a temporary leave. He hoped to be back around the first of the year to help pilot the GOP to success next November. Meanwhile, his good friend Dan Mattoon would be taking over for a spell. But some knowledgeable folks at the NRCC and on the Hill were telling a slightly different story.

There had been clashes between Hatch and Davis. Nothing major, just lots of small things that built up. Much of it was about style -- the aggressive DeLay style versus the appeasing Davis approach.

House conservatives have a name for moderate Republicans whom they don't see as standing for anything other than themselves. They say, "He's a squish." It's not a compliment. With his tentative, nice-guy style, Tom Davis, in the eyes of some conservatives, qualified.

Last February, after the AFL-CIO announced it would spend more than $40 million in lobbying and campaigning for the 2000 elections, Hatch told the New York Times, "It's ironic that the union bosses are meeting in sunny Miami and staying at fine resorts plotting to buy influence among Gore-Gephardt Democrats rather than using union dues to improve the quality of lives of their hard-working members."

Davis, who has a moderate record on union issues and several government unions in his Fairfax County district, didn't like that. Staffers could hear Davis yelling at Hatch through the closed door after the quotation appeared. But even after the reaming, Hatch didn't drop the issue, according to sources.

The AFL-CIO is the enemy, he argued. It gives 99 times as much cash to the Demo-crats as it does to Republicans. To symbolize the disparity he placed 99 Pepsi cans and one Coke can on the credenza in his office. He told anyone who asked that the cans were merely there for drinking. But the true meaning wasn't lost on Davis.

Others in the GOP hierarchy began taking shots at Hatch. He was too intense, they said -- maybe he had learned just a little

too well from Tom DeLay. Just as a successful staffer has a thousand fathers, a stumbling staffer can sometimes seem like an orphan. People from the DeLay team seemed all-too eager to talk trash about the former boy wonder.

"There are intense office politics in DeLay's office," says a top House GOP staffer. "Tom DeLay is the kind of boss who listens to his staff. And that's a good thing, in general, but at the same time it feeds a very political atmosphere. To say Scott would have enemies around? Sure. Even within his own camp? Absolutely."

The prospects of the NRCC and the House GOP in November are nowhere near as bright as they seemed a year ago. Dem-ocrats have made inroads into the business community, candidate recruitment is sputtering and House Democrats are so cocky that three representatives already have declared intentions to run for majority whip after the Democrats' anticipated recapture of the House. To lay this all at Hatch's feet is ludicrous; nonetheless, if you're a top Republican, he would make an easy target.

"You've got a guy with a tough, aggressive style who's very successful and very young -- but also very hard and kind of coarse," says a knowledgeable observer. "And he comes in, does a great job and raises gobs of money, but there's still this underlying friction with Davis, who has a more moderate style. And they clashed. And then Scott's health continues to deteriorate, and then it just happens: Dan Mattoon comes in."

True Believer

"When you spend too much time in the power corridors, you know, your perspective gets fuzzy," Scott Hatch is saying. His illness has given him a "chance to step back and look at my life for the first time in a long while."

Hatch spent the fall shuttling between teams of experts at Washington Hospital Center and Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore. There were innumerable tests, scopes, blood samples, invasive procedures. "It was not very fun," he says.

At the end of it all, doctors couldn't settle on a definitive diagnosis, and regard his illness as an amalgam of biochemical and hormonal disorders including colitis and irritable bowel syndrome. He was given a new set of medications. He regained the 10 to 12 pounds he lost after he collapsed. He added a nutritionist and fitness trainer to his Rolodex. As Congress returns to work in coming days, so, too, should Hatch.

Then again, there are rumors that he is being wooed by various private companies. As of the first week in January, all Hatch would say is that he "will continue to play a constructive role for the team."

Speaking by phone from his parents' lake home in Connecticut, Hatch says he's had a chance to spend time with family and friends. "It reconnects you with what's important in people's lives, and what really matters. It's a real-world connection versus the constant political BS you deal with on Capitol Hill, the billions of dollars dedicated to this or the posturing in the newspaper for that."

He concedes his style contributed to his illness and says he's ready to lower his intensity and reduce his work hours. But he's not retreating an inch from his passion for political combat. Nor does he accept that his friends in the House used the opportunity of his illness to effectively demote him and put someone over him whom they trusted more. He still believes in them.

"There are two types of people in this city: those who passionately care about things and those who are out for themselves. I think about the fights we've been through -- winning the majority, the balanced budget, welfare reform -- it takes people with a special passion to get things done. The John Kasichs, the Tom DeLays, the Jim Rogans, the Denny Hasterts, the Bob Ehrlichs. Those are the kinds of leaders I like working for. They have a passion to win. They have a soul. They're not afraid of a good fight."

And anyone in his own camp downgrading his role, leaking to the press, sniping at him anonymously, is just plain missing the point. "They should be spending their time taking it to the enemy," he says, "doing what it takes to win -- not playing internal politics."

In the thick of his illness, Hatch found himself awake at 3:30 a.m. He turned on C-SPAN to find a familiar face. It was a rebroadcast of Ronald Reagan delivering his first Inaugural Address. "It reminded me of why I came to Washington," says Scott Hatch.

Jake Tapper is Washington correspondent for Salon.com. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.