A recent round of cooperation between President Clinton and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) on the budget and other issues has signaled the first thaw in the icy relations that have endured for months between the White House and the GOP-controlled Congress.
In hasty meetings, behind stage at official ceremonies and during quick international phone calls, the two men have quietly forged a businesslike rapport that would otherwise seem unremarkable if not for the climate of extreme hostility and partisanship since last year's impeachment.
Though other signs point to stalemate between the two parties next year, Clinton and Hastert may have a mutual interest in reaching modest accords on trade, urban and rural economic development, and anti-drug trafficking efforts. Just as the president is looking to enhance his legacy during his last year in office, Hastert is hoping to establish enough of a legislative record to counter Democratic attacks against a "do-nothing Congress."
"They need each other," said John J. Pitney Jr., associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "Clinton would like to get some legislation out of Congress, and Hastert would like to get legislation off the president's desk."
Clinton's interaction with Hastert is markedly different from how he has related to other congressional leaders--the good-old-boy schtick he employs with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), for example, or the wonkish, detailed policy discussions he engaged in with former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). But the two have a matter-of-fact rapport, with none of the animosity that often characterized Clinton's dealings with Gingrich.
"We have a good working relationship," Hastert said in an interview. "He knows he can take me at my word. We're able to talk straight to each other, go through the process and get our work done."
One senior White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that while the two men aren't particularly close, Clinton is more comfortable with Hastert than with House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.). In the final days of budget negotiations, for example, DeLay was absent from talks with the White House.
Clinton "doesn't have a poisonous relationship with him that he has with the other House leaders," the official said, adding that from the White House point of view, "Hastert is more inclined to try to get things done."
The two men barely knew each other when House Republicans abruptly promoted Hastert to speaker a year ago, and they were slow to reach a common understanding on issues facing Congress. During their initial White House meetings, the affable Illinois Republican tended to keep quiet, according to participants, and Hastert's determination to let the House "work its will" on controversial bills infuriated Democrats, as measures supporting the air war in Kosovo and imposing stricter gun controls lost by small margins.
As fall approached, however, the two leaders became more engaged on the budget, as well as a smaller initiative aimed at spurring economic development in inner cities and poor rural areas.
Clinton actively wooed Hastert on his campaign to help impoverished communities, first inviting him on a tour through Appalachia and later sending the speaker a private note after Hastert told Clinton he wanted to reconcile the parties' competing proposals on economic development.
In the midst of budget negotiations last month, Hastert and Clinton flew to Chicago to unveil a common "set of principles" that would lay a foundation for economic development legislation. Offstage, according to White House and congressional officials, the two discussed the remaining stumbling blocks to a budget deal and vowed to work things out.
While Gingrich alienated conservatives in 1998 by forging a giant budget deal with the White House, Hastert mollified the traditional band of GOP discontents by leaving most of the negotiating to lieutenants. "You could still be unhappy with the outcome, but the way we got there was a much more democratic way of getting there," said Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.).
But the speaker did intervene to get things going at key moments. He agreed to move a bill funding foreign aid programs--a top priority of the president--over the objections of other Republicans such as DeLay, who viewed the measure as an effective political tool against Clinton. He deputized his chief of staff to negotiate with the White House on a compromise for paying U.N. dues. And Hastert personally negotiated a small across-the-board spending cut with Clinton while the president was traveling in Turkey, even joking at one point that Clinton should drink "some Turkish coffee" so he would be alert enough to haggle over numbers.
In every case, Hastert reprised his previous role as chief deputy whip, gauging the mood of the House and delivering his assessment to the president. "I think the key is to say, 'We can do this' and 'I don't think we can get this done,' " Hastert said.
There are obvious limits to Hastert's "honest broker" approach: A serious divide still separates Republicans and Democrats on key issues, and the speaker usually opts to allow his members to vote their own way instead of shepherding them into a more compromising position.
When asked in a recent interview whether Hastert and Clinton's improved rapport would produce significant legislative breakthroughs next year, DeLay laughed.
"All that you can know for certain is when Denny Hastert picks up the phone to call the president, he'll answer, and they'll have a very professional exchange," DeLay said.
House Democrats have even less of an incentive to compromise, now that the majority is within their grasp in next year's elections. But Clinton is looking to House Republicans for support on several items next session, including a vote that would allow China to enter the World Trade Organization. Both sides are also hoping to finish work on trade bills aimed at Africa and the Caribbean, which were held up in negotiations between the House and Senate this fall.
"To the extent that we have mutual goals, we'll be able to achieve those," said National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (Va.). "On trade issues, clearly Denny Hastert and the Republican leadership is going to be closer to President Clinton than to the AFL-CIO."
Hastert, an avid free-trader, noted that GOP opposition to China's human rights and defense policies make Democratic support essential to any successful WTO vote. "The president will have to put votes on the board to get it passed," he said.
Clinton has also made overtures to Hastert on the question of Colombia's war against illegal drugs, a longtime priority for the speaker. In his news conference last week, Clinton said he hopes that "early this year, we will have a proposal to provide further assistance to Colombia that will be substantial, effective and have broad bipartisan support. That is my goal."
Any new aid to Colombia could help further warm relations between the White House and Hastert: The usually mild-mannered lawmaker becomes animated when the subject of narco-guerrillas and drug trafficking is raised. "We're at risk of losing the first democracy in the Southern Hemisphere," he said.
For the moment, however, Clinton officials remain fairly cautious in their assessment of the third-highest-ranking constitutional officer.
"Hastert seemed to play a role . . . of someone who could talk with the president," said White House press secretary Joe Lockhart. "We got some constructive things done with him."
Staff writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.