House leaders rarely spend their time critiquing their television performances with members of Washington's homeless community.

But that's how House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) spent part of his regular workout in Stanton Park last year, discussing his debate with Jesse L. Jackson on CNN.

"They just loved my message of initiative and responsibility," recalled Dreier, who visited one of the men in D.C. jail recently.

With compassionate conservatism in vogue on the presidential campaign trail, Dreier is the House's embodiment of it. From his perch at the Rules Committee on the third floor of the Capitol to his post at the helm of Newt Gingrich's old political committee, GOPAC, Dreier is touting both technology and inclusiveness as the key to the GOP's future.

While the Rules Committee may be little known outside the Beltway, Washington power brokers are well aware of Dreier's key role in shaping how legislation moves through Congress. The committee basically sets the rules of debate for each bill to come before the House: how much time is allotted to consideration; what, if any, amendments may be proposed. With nine Republicans and four Democrats on the panel--the most lopsided ratio in the House--Dreier is free to craft rules for considering legislation the way he and other GOP leaders want. A rule is subject to a House vote, but it is rare for a majority to lose one.

Just the other week, Democrats cried foul when Republicans on the committee passed a rule that ensured broader managed-care reform bills could be combined with a tax-break measure the Democrats oppose.

"In the dead of night last night, the House leaders concocted a process filled with enough poison pills and legislative sleights of hand to practically guarantee the defeat of this bill," President Clinton said afterward. "This is a travesty."

Calling Clinton's comments "absolutely preposterous," Dreier noted that the procedures allowed a range of health care bills to be considered: "This rule was designed to make sure every single concern that was out there was addressed."

They were unusually sharp words for the nattily dressed lawmaker, who has a habit of snacking on Granny Smith apples on his way to a vote. In contrast to his predecessor, Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.), an acerbic and excitable former Marine who would often rush witnesses through testimony, Dreier is known for his placid demeanor.

"I see my job as moving our agenda, number one, and doing it in the fairest way possible," Dreier, 47, a 10-term lawmaker, said in a recent interview. "Some might say those conflict, but the priority is moving our agenda."

This calculation is not lost on the minority: Rep. John Joseph Moakley (D-Mass.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, noted that Dreier is "very polite" even when he denies the Democrats what they want.

"I disagree with him on almost every vote, but he's a very nice fellow," Moakley said. "The food is the same, but we get a new waitress."

Dreier also devotes time to bolstering the GOP's electoral fortunes across the country. He recently took over GOPAC, the political committee that has faded somewhat from public view now that it is no longer the focus of an ethics complaint against Gingrich (R-Ga.). The former speaker used GOPAC to disseminate his political vision to aspiring candidates; Dreier, a high-tech advocate who helped pass legislation addressing fallout from Year 2000 computer glitches, prefers to use the Internet to allow local politicians to communicate with one another.

"What is our Republican vision? It is to continue to decentralize power and decision-making and get as much as possible to the state and local level," he argued. "What is seen now as the farm team for Washington is really going to be the big leagues."

Dreier likes to talk about a "Hispanic city councilman who is Republican in one community who feels like getting online through our portal to communicate with a female city councilwoman in another state," the kind of image that fits in nicely with the presidential campaign of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, whom Dreier has known for more than 20 years.

The two were seatmates at the GOP's training academy in 1978 when they were both running for Congress. Both Bush and Dreier, who was running his campaign out of a dorm room, lost in 1978. But Dreier went on to win the next election and now co-chairs Bush's campaign in California.

As the first Californian to chair an exclusive House committee, he's redecorated the rules panel's offices with vistas of San Dimas, Monterey and Pasadena from the late 1800s, making a political point about that.

"I was surrounded by portraits of only old dead white guys," Dreier explained, motioning to the landscapes, as a fire roared nearby in his newly working fireplace. "Since California's obviously the wave of the future, being the gateway to the Pacific and Latin America, that's the way to go."

Capitol Players

David Dreier

Title: Member, House of Representatives (R-Calif.)

Age: 47.

Education: Bachelor's degree, Claremont McKenna College; master's in American government, Claremont Mckenna Graduate School.

Family: Single.

Previous jobs: Director of corporate relations, Claremont McKenna; marketing for San Dimas industrial firm.

Hobbies: Running, swimming, collecting vintage watches.

On the Rules Committee: "I see my job as moving our agenda, number one, and doing it in the fairest way possible. Some might say those conflict, but the priority is moving our agenda."

CAPTION: Chairman David Dreier's Rules Committee shapes how legislation moves through the House.