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KWAME HOLMAN: A group of leading Republican women met early this month in Washington and cheered enthusiastically for the Speaker of the House — the former Speaker.
LUNCHEON HOSTESS : We miss him a lot and I hope you’ll give a great welcome to our friend, Newt Gingrich. (Applause)
KWAME HOLMAN: In his first major speech since resigning as House Speaker last fall, Newt Gingrich roundly attacked President Clinton and the Democrats — and said a few words about the man who replaced him as Speaker — Dennis Hastert of Illinois.
NEWT GINGRICH: It’s a tough, tough job, and my heart goes out to Denny Hastert. He’s a great American, and I think as he learns the job he’s going to do better and better, and you’re going to be proud by next year.
KWAME HOLMAN: Such qualified praise of the new House Speaker is common even among Republicans. And when Dennis Hastert went before the same group a few hours later, the response was more subdued.
REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Well, I’ll tell you, that was a very kind introduction. I probably ought to sit down while I’m ahead. But never in my mind did I ever think I ever had the chance to be Speaker of the House. That was just something that I never thought about — never —
KWAME HOLMAN: Hastert was thrust into the job in December when a much better-known successor — Bob Livingston of Louisiana — abruptly withdrew after acknowledging extramarital affairs.
REP. TOM EWING: 99 percent of us were totally taken by surprise that he wasn’t going to run, wasn’t going to accept the speakership.
KWAME HOLMAN: Fellow Illinois Republican Congressman Tom Ewing is a lifelong friend and Washington roommate of Dennis Hastert.
REP. TOM EWING: I said, Denny, you’ve got to do this. And he says, I don’t know. I don’t know if I should do this or want to do this, and I said, you’re the person to do this.
KWAME HOLMAN: The 57-year-old Hastert was sworn-in in January — and being a man of few words –instantly exhibited an opposite persona to that of the high-profile Gingrich.
REP. DENNIS HASTERT: And now let’s bring an end to talk and let’s get to work.
KWAME HOLMAN: In the weeks since, the Speaker at times has had trouble getting everyone’s attention.
CHAIRMAN: The Speaker on the floor deserves to be heard.
KWAME HOLMAN: Mr. Speaker, have you ever heard or read a report about yourself that didn’t have low-key, quiet, behind-the-scenes, those kinds of things in it?
REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Well, I think that’s pretty much how I am. I don’t try to be something that I’m not. I know that I sat at the leadership table with Newt Gingrich for four years. I’m not Newt Gingrich. I’m a different type of person. I work hard. I try to do what I think is the right things, and I do it on a day-by-day basis. You know, I was a lineman when I was at high school and college football. You never got a lot of glory but you worked hard to get the job done and, you know, I think that persona kind of follows through.
KWAME HOLMAN: Hastert already was a member of the House leadership — quietly serving as a Deputy Republican Whip. But the husband and father of two sons often could be found on weekends back in his hometown of Yorkville, Illinois, running errands or chatting up constituents at the grocery store. Hastert served three terms in the Illinois legislature. He’s a former high school history teacher and highly competitive coach of the wrestling team. Only in recent days has the once-reluctant Speaker of the House begun to grant television interviews.
You’ve been in the job five months now. How do you think it’s going?
REP. DENNIS HASTERT: I’ve got a lot more gray hair. [laughs] I think it’s going as well as it could be expected. You know, this is an incredible job. It has incredible opportunities. But it is also incredibly tough. We have a five-vote majority out of 435 members. That means that we have a committee of two-hundred-twenty-two people, that we can never lose more than five people. If you do, you can get the work done that you want to do. That’s a tough thing to do.
KWAME HOLMAN: Hastert already has experienced the pitfalls of leadership. Last month, he quietly cast a vote in favor of a Democratic resolution endorsing NATO’s air campaign against Yugoslavia. But the overwhelming majority of his rank and file Republicans voted “no”. The influential and strongly partisan Republican Whip — Tom Delay reportedly urged several Republicans to vote down the measure, which failed in a tie. The next day, House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt aimed his criticism directly at the new Speaker.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: The Republican leadership has shown an amazing lack of leadership.
KWAME HOLMAN: One report said you assured Mr. Gephardt easy passage. REP.
DENNIS HASTERT: I didn’t assure anybody. We were down at the White House that day and I said if I looked at that now and I didn’t know what the votes were going to be and I didn’t even know what bill the Democrats were going to bring up — really didn’t know what bill they were going to bring up.
KWAME HOLMAN: Martin Frost of Texas — a member of the House Democratic leadership echoes the charge that Hastert hasn’t firmly grasped the reins of power.
REP. MARTIN FROST: He says he wants to do things, and he says he wants to be bipartisan, and yet he permits a harshly partisan individual like Tom Delay to the House Whip, the Republican Whip, to call a lot of the shots, to be the public face of the Republican Party, to be the face of the House of Representatives. If you look at Meet the Press, or you look at the interview shows on the weekends, you don’t see Denny Hastert. You see Tom Delay.
TIM RUSSERT, “Meet the Press”: Many people are suggesting very strongly that you are the de facto Speaker, that Dennis Hastert is nothing more than a puppet.
REP. TOM DELAY: Dennis Hastert is Speaker of the House, and he is the right man for the right time. He’s already proven that. He is the Speaker of the House, and I support him.
REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Tom DeLay isn’t running things and like any political organization there are people who like to drive wedges here and there. I worked with Tom DeLay for four years in the majority. As a matter of fact, I ran his campaign to make him the Whip and I was his chief deputy whip for four years. Sometimes we agree, and sometimes we don’t agree. But we also have a very straight policy that we talk to each other in a very straight basis. He felt very strongly about the war in Kosovo and a little different from the way I did. He didn’t change any votes on the floor and we didn’t whip it that day. So he may have expressed his opinion but I don’t think anything changed.
KWAME HOLMAN: So Dennis Hastert is in charge.
REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Absolutely.
KWAME HOLMAN: Hastert rebounded quickly in the eyes of some critics when — earlier this month — he stared down one of the most powerful members of Congress — Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia.
SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Run over me — that’s all right — but tell the good Speaker that I’m not dropping anything. He can vote me down. He’s the Speaker. He’s a mighty man.
KWAME HOLMAN: Byrd had insisted a loan guarantee program for steel companies be added to an emergency spending bill. But Speaker Hastert convinced a handful of Republican appropriators to switch their earlier votes and reject the proposal in exchange for a later vote on the issue.
REP. RALPH REGULA: I have been assured by the Speaker that the steel guarantee loan proposal will be on the floor of the House as a free-standing bill, and as such I would vote for it.
KWAME HOLMAN: Byrd relented.
MARSHALL WITTMAN: This was a very important gesture by the Speaker. And it may be one of the first defining moments of his Speakership.
KWAME HOLMAN: Marshall Wittman watches Congress for the conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation.
MARSHALL WITTMAN: He actually intervened with the group on Capitol Hill known as the Cardinals, the appropriators, and told them that he didn’t want pork. And the reason why it was so critical is because it will set the mood for the rest of the year on spending bills. But perhaps, more importantly, Denny Hastert showed who was boss on a critical issue.
KWAME HOLMAN: A week later, Hastert stepped in and spoke up preemptively on the issue of gun control — avoiding for House Republicans the political embarrassment suffered by their Senate colleagues, who were forced to reverse themselves on a gun measure.
REP. DENNIS HASTERT: We know it’s against the federal law to purchase a handgun at a federally licensed gun store or a federally licensed pawn shop, but there are pawn shops and there are situations at gun shows where some dealers, who are not licensed, and it’s actually legal for a person who’s under the age of 21 years of age to purchase a handgun. I think that’s wrong.
KWAME HOLMAN: Hastert says such a statement should not be a surprise, even though it comes from a man who, like most other Republicans, voted against major gun controls a few years ago.
This is not a major change for Dennis Hastert in terms of–.
REP. DENNIS HASTERT: I think this is common sense. I think the American people think it’s common sense to do this as well.
KWAME HOLMAN: Hastert has a philosophy for approaching the job of House Speaker.
REP. DENNIS HASTERT: The best way to get something done is to get things done on time. So we got the budget on time, we’ve set out the parameters for a tax bill, we’re trying to get the appropriation bills through the process without a lot of extra money and we’re trying to save Social Security, we’re trying to improve education, we’ve said we think every kid needs a good school and a safe school to go to.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Democrats complain they too have an agenda and that Hastert is dragging his feet while the legislative clock ticks.
REP MARTIN FROST: Every week they keep taking – taking days off the legislative calendar. We don’t work on Mondays, we don’t work on Fridays, we don’t come in until 6 p.m. on Tuesdays, we give away entire weeks. If they were serious about doing campaign finance reform, if they were serious about HMO reform, if they were serious about education issues, we’d be in session five days a week, at least four days a week. We’re in session two and a half days a week right now. And that doesn’t give you a lot of time to do anything.
MARSHALL WITTMAN: The Speaker and the Republicans have a dilemma. Because they have such a narrow majority, it’s next to impossible to get bills passed unless they have the support of some Democrats. And, of course, the Democrats don’t want anything to pass because they don’t want the Republicans to have accomplishments as they approach the year 2000. So therein lies the rub.
KWAME HOLMAN: Examples of that dilemma occurred this week. On Wednesday a group of conservative Republicans — worried Congress would spend too much money this year — held up consideration of a major agriculture Spending bill. And yesterday, Speaker Hastert pulled from the floor a defense bill because disputes over China and Kosovo policies threatened to derail it. Nonetheless, Illinois’ Tom Ewing insists Dennis Hastert has exactly the skills needed for these times.
REP. TOM EWING: We had him picked to be Speaker of the Illinois House 20 years ago, and then he moved to Congress and we thought oh, we lost one of our best candidates. The man has that talent, and it’s obvious to his associates and colleagues that deal with him.
REP. DENNIS HASTERT: You know it’s a unique opportunity to be the Speaker of the House. Not a lot of people in the history of this country have ever been able to do it. My goal is to do the best job I can here everyday and try to not disappoint the people who elected me Speaker or the American people.
REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Thank you for being here and giving me the opportunity to spend some time with you tonight. Thank you very much.
KWAME HOLMAN: If anything, Speaker Hastert may be even more optimistic than those around him. He says there’s a good chance Republicans and Democrats will reach a deal on Social Security and Medicare reform this year — contrary to the widespread belief in Washington.