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Hastert Keeps House in Order

As he leads his party through his sixth year as Speaker and with no clear retirement date in sight, Dennis Hastert seems to be establishing an odd new political rule — the less you want the job, the longer you’ll keep it.

“I never expected to be Speaker,” the Illinois Republican said in an interview Wednesday. “It just happened. … I feel that I’ve done it not because this was a burning passion, that I’ve always wanted to be Speaker and step over people or climb through people politically to get to this post.”

Having been talked into taking the post in 1998 to fill a leadership vacuum after the fall of ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Hastert has since divided his time between protecting the House as an institution and boosting the Republican Party’s political and ideological fortunes.

Along the way, Hastert has become the Bush White House’s most reliable ally on the Hill, raising the question of whether he would ever leave the job as long as Bush is in office.

“I feel responsibility to the [Republican] Conference and to the Congress to do this job and do it as well as I can, and not to leave in the middle of a crisis or leave in the middle of a campaign,” Hastert said. “In my coaching philosophy, I’ve always said you ought to leave when you’re on top, that you leave a better legacy.

“I would hope that I could serve here as long as I’m effective. I think that’s a fairly simple parameter to set around yourself. I think we’ve got a lot of good things that we can still do here.”

On the institutional front, Hastert has been questioned recently about the status and wisdom of the “ethics truce” that even now seems to be collapsing, the delicate cease-fire between Republican and Democratic leaders that watchdog groups have blamed for the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct’s relative inactivity in recent years.

As Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did last week, Hastert sought to clarify what exactly the “truce” represents.

“I said to [then-Minority Leader Richard] Gephardt [D-Mo.] at the time, ‘Lookit, when people have misused their office or done something wrong we need to go forward with an ethics charge, but to use the ethics committee as a political football I think is wrong, and we shouldn’t do it,’” Hastert said. “Let’s try to limit on both sides the charges that are purely political. We tried to do it on purely political ethics issues, because I didn’t think that served the institution well or Members well.”

Hastert also took pains to dispel the notion that he has any control over what issues the ethics panel chooses to examine.

“From my position … I’ve given the chairman of the ethics committee free reign to do his work and that’s how I think it should be,” Hastert said. “I don’t think the leadership should interfere.”

Hastert’s hands-off policy became particularly clear after Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Mo.) wrote the Speaker a letter asking him to press the ethics committee to look into allegations that GOP leaders attempted to bribe Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) for his Medicare vote last year.

“When Steny Hoyer wrote me the letter saying I should push this investigation, which I think was politically motivated, I wrote back and said, ‘Lookit, I’ve never told the ethics committee what to do or what not to do,’” Hastert said. “They’re free to investigate or look into any charges that come up, and that’s how I think it ought to happen.”

Asked whether he would expect a GOP lawmaker who wanted to file an ethics charge to check with him first, Hastert said, “Not at all.”

Beyond preventing another ethics war, Hastert believes the institution of the House can also be strengthened by keeping lawmakers happy and well-compensated.

Under permanent law, Members receive automatic pay increases each year unless they vote specifically to block them. The COLAs have gone through each of the past five years.

This year, however, House Republicans are pushing an austere budget that essentially freezes non-defense, non-homeland discretionary spending, and lawmakers may feel more political heat on the COLA issue.

“It’s a possibility,” Hastert said of whether Members might block their pay raise this year. “We’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it.

“What I’ve tried to do over the last few years since I’ve been Speaker is to make sure that Members have gradual increases so that we didn’t have … a raise of $20,000, $10,000. That’s a very painful vote, yet to keep people that have to have two homes … to have kids go through college, to have all the costs of everybody else and to keep two locations is very expensive. … I’ve supported giving a COLA all the way along. It’s really up to the Members.”

This being an election year, Hastert will expend significant effort encouraging Republicans to rally behind Bush’s agenda. At Wednesday’s GOP Conference meeting, Hastert compared Bush to former President Ronald Reagan and emphasized the need for solidarity now more than ever.

The key to establishing that unity will be Hastert’s ability to sell the budget to his own lawmakers.

“The Democrats demagogue the budget,” Hastert said. “They don’t help with it. … We have to do it with our own people, and when you’ve got a margin of anywhere from five, six, eight seats … you have to have everybody pretty much together with a lot of divergent interests.”

Meanwhile, Hastert will spend whatever free time he has off the Hill campaigning for GOP House Members and candidates.

“My focus really is on the Congress,” Hastert said. “I will help the Congress, and I see that as a tandem relationship. We’ll have probably 20 to 40 [House] races in play, and that’s where my main emphasis will be.”

But while he will focus mostly on House contests, Hastert has also shown a willingness to join other Republican leaders in criticizing Sen. John Kerry’s record — and in questioning whether the Massachusetts Democrat is or ever has been a real legislative leader.

“I’ve fought a lot of battles on education, on health care, and a lot of times I’ve been nose to nose with a guy like [Sen. Edward] Kennedy [D-Mass.],” Hastert said. “I didn’t agree with him on everything, but we’ve been nose to nose in battle and I respect him for his positions. I’ve never really encountered John Kerry on positions. It’s just kind of, all the sudden he’s here.”

While Hastert has developed a strong bond with Bush and will work to get him re-elected, his affection does not always extend to the rest of the White House. That has been particularly true during negotiations over the massive highway bill.

Hastert was unusually blunt last week on the subject, telling reporters that he only deals with Bush on the issue now and avoids talking to the president’s staff.

“I think we were at one time told one set of numbers and we ended up with a different set of numbers,” Hastert explained Wednesday. “I just want to make sure whatever numbers we go with, the president knows exactly where we’re at and we don’t have to go through two or three different channels to get there.”

Asked whether he has taken steps to ensure that such problems don’t arise again in the future, Hastert said, “I’ve talked to the president about it.”

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