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  •   Hastert Drawing Crowds of Lobbyists

    House Speaker Dennis Hastert
    House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) addressed the annual meeting of the National Governors' Association in February. (AP)
    By Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, March 10, 1999; Page A1

    Since his election as House speaker, Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has begun offering industry lobbyists the kind of deal they like: private audiences where, for a price, they can voice their views on what kind of agenda the 106th Congress should pursue.

    Last week, for instance, Hastert gathered for fund-raising meetings with accounting executives, financial services representatives and the clients of the lobbying firm Fierce & Isakowitz, which represents companies in the telecommunications and fast-food industries. In one week alone, the new speaker collected roughly $200,000 in contributions for his Keep Our Majority political action committee, a formidable feat for someone who raised only $85,000 for his PAC during all of last year.

    The retail fund-raising represents a departure from the approach of former speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), who regularly sold out large party events in the heartland with his electric vision of the Republican revolution. Hastert does not rival his predecessor, but he is forging an effective fund-raising machine by lending a ready ear to lobbyists eager to get to know the new speaker.

    "Speaker Hastert has built up a great deal of goodwill and has a reputation among the business community as a get-it-done guy," said Scott Hatch, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "From health care to financial services modernization, the business community likes Hastert because he's a hands-on kind of guy."

    But watchdog groups say Hastert's tactics reflect what they call the regrettable way things are done in Washington. Common Cause legislative director Meredith McGehee calls it a "pay to play system," in which only influential political activists have an opportunity to participate.

    "If you're someone who's a lobbyist or you can hire someone to do it, you get your chance to make your case. If you happen to be like 99 percent of the rest of us, you don't," McGehee said, arguing that Hastert should cast a wider net. "It's unfortunate that he shows more interest in playing the game than changing the game."

    One Washington lobbyist said the fund-raisers were attracting a crowd because Hastert loyalists are eager to show he can fill the political role of speaker, while business executives who are less familiar with him want to meet Hastert and his senior aides.

    "They were very comfortable in the old layout of the House," said this lobbyist, who did not want to be identified. "They're yearning to feel comfortable again."

    Hastert, who has been a key player in fashioning GOP policies on health care and other issues of concern to business, is not exactly a fund-raising novice. As the GOP's chief deputy whip, he raised more than $1 million for his own comfortable reelection bid last election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In 1997-98, finance, insurance and real estate PACs gave him more than $155,000, or a quarter of the PAC funds contributed to his campaign, while health care groups donated nearly $103,000, the center reported.

    This year, Hastert has turned his attention to his leadership PAC, collecting $350,000 in two months, compared with $130,000 in all of 1997 and 1998. The money can be used to fund the campaigns of Republican House incumbents and challengers in the 2000 elections.

    Hastert's emerging fund-raising prowess was on public display last night at the Washington Hilton, as House GOP leaders presided over "Leadership 2000," the NRCC's single largest event of the year. Organizers say they have already surpassed their fund-raising target of $2.5 million by more than $1.5 million.

    Hastert's schedule during a two-day trip to New York highlights the frenetic pace he has adopted as part of his effort to replenish the GOP's campaign coffers. He flew into the city the evening of Feb. 18 and raised $100,000 at investor Robert Wood Johnson's home overlooking Central Park, then appeared on Republican Gov. George E. Pataki's radio show and had dinner with him. The next day he was up for a 7 a.m. meet-and-greet with 60 Wall Street financiers, after which he rang the New York Stock Exchange's opening bell. He then met with Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) and held a news conference with the mayor on education before returning to Washington.

    "He is being exceedingly active, even more than Newt," said Jack Abramoff, government affairs counselor for the firm Preston Gates, who has helped raise money for Gingrich and Hastert and has noticed donors' eagerness to meet the new speaker and his aides. "For people who have not dealt with him on a lobbying level, this will be their first chance to go over their issues with him."

    Hastert is closely coordinating his activities with the NRCC, attending donor events in far-flung locales from the committee's Super Bowl party in Miami to its weekend getaway in Palm Springs, Calif. According to several participants, Hastert often stays longer than Gingrich did at such gatherings and draws people in with his self-effacing manner.

    "You always found him in a crowd of people who were talking to him, whether he was at breakfast or lunch or out in the pool. He was one of the gang," said former representative Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.), now a lobbyist. "Newt had more of a celebrity status. It's not that he wasn't accessible. People were kind of standoffish because people were wondering whether he was accessible."

    While Hastert stands little chance of breaking Gingrich's fund-raising record in the near future -- Gingrich raised $50 million for the NRCC in 1997-98, plus $10 million for individual candidates -- the Illinois Republican is boasting a slimmed-down operation. The NRCC already has cut $1 million from the speaker's liaison budget, in part because it funded Gingrich consultants such as Joe Gaylord and had larger expenses, like leasing corporate-style jets.

    "Newt had this sort of prizefighter's entourage, whereas Denny does not," said one GOP fund-raiser, adding that some donors wearied of the production accompanying a Gingrich visit.

    Financial Services Council President Samuel J. Baptista, who arranged a $5,000-per-person dinner at the Monocle restaurant for Hastert, said he and his colleagues welcomed the chance to tout a measure modernizing financial services as the type of bipartisan bill the new speaker wants.

    "The message we have, and he understood, is that it's a different situation," Baptista said. "He said it's important we get the message out to members that there's a broader consensus than there was in the past."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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