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Hastert Rolls On as Speaker, But for How Long?

During the 108th Congress, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) quietly bought a 200-acre farm just outside of Plano, Ill. The purchase wasn’t big news, since Hastert grew up in farm country and plenty of Members buy new houses without attracting much attention.

But when you’re the Speaker of the House — and when speculation about your expected retirement date is one of the most popular parlor games on Capitol Hill — such a purchase can take on added significance, even if it signifies nothing more than Hastert’s desire to buy a farm.

And while some Republicans still wonder whether the transaction is a sign that Hastert is ready to move back to Illinois, most Members and aides who know the Speaker well say they don’t expect him to go anytime soon.

“I think the Speaker is going to stay at least four years — maybe longer,” said a Republican source who is close to Hastert. “I don’t see any reason for him to leave.”

With a term limit on the Speakership now a thing of the past — it was eliminated by House Republicans less than a decade after it was first implemented — four years may well be Hastert’s magic number, as it matches the amount of time remaining in President Bush’s White House tenure.

By all accounts, Bush and Hastert have forged an unusually close working relationship since 2000. The two men and Vice President Cheney meet privately every few weeks to plot strategy, and the administration has come to depend on Hastert to shepherd its agenda through the House.

In early January, The New York Times quoted White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card saying that Bush had personally asked Hastert to run for re-election in 2006. Indeed, the president’s campaign to convince Hastert to stay has gone beyond just one-on-one lobbying.

Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) said that he had recently flown back home on Air Force One along with Bush and Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.). During the trip, the president worked to enlist them in his effort to keep Hastert on the Hill.

Bush “had just talked to the Speaker and he said, ‘I need Denny Hastert. I want you guys to encourage him to stay,’” LaHood recalled. “My feeling is Denny will be around as long as President Bush is around.”

To be sure, there are plenty of reasons why the 63-year-old Hastert might want to put in just two more years as Speaker.

He’s now starting his fourth term at the helm, making him the longest-serving Speaker since the late Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) held the position for 10 years. He has presided over a number of white-knuckle legislative victories, including the Medicare bill and the recent intelligence reform package.

In addition, Hastert maintains a grueling schedule, regularly visiting more than 100 districts each election cycle while still travelling home to Illinois during nearly every available weekend.

Despite those rigors, Members and aides close to him say they see little desire on his part to slow down. The fact that most of his senior staff has stuck with him is also seen as an indication that Hastert’s retirement is not imminent.

Spokesman John Feehery is leaving for the private sector, but the bulk of Hastert’s senior staff roster has been remarkably stable since he assumed the Speakership in 1999. Chief of Staff Scott Palmer, Deputy Chief of Staff Mike Stokke, Counsel Ted Van Der Meid and Communications Director Pete Jeffries have all been in place throughout his tenure.

No other current Republican leader has kept his senior aides in place this long. Nor did Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) when he was Speaker.

While Hastert regularly says that he never wanted the Speakership in the first place — he got the job after Gingrich became saddled with ethics controversies and presided over a loss of seats in the 1998 midterm elections — he has gradually strengthened his hand over the past six years, using both the raw procedural power that comes with his office and the softer power of persuasion.

“I think coalescing all of this power around him is something he never thought of doing when he first became Speaker,” LaHood said.

Most recently, Hastert was able to use his accumulated clout to guide the House through the tumultuous process of passing an intelligence reform measure.

Prospects for getting a bill through the House initially looked cloudy, with a host of turf wars dividing the Conference and a general resentment among many Republicans at being pressured into such a massive reorganization of government.

“I think a lot of Members were content to say, ‘Oh, we really don’t need to get this done,’” said a senior Republican leadership aide.

Tensions came to a head at a Republican Conference meeting the Saturday before Thanksgiving, until Hastert stood up and calmed everyone down.

“He said, ‘We worked hard on this bill. Here’s what we’re trying to do. It’s the best deal we were going to get,’” recalled a senior GOP leadership aide. “The temperature in the room went down in a second.”

Eventually, Hastert acceded to the wishes of his Conference by delaying a vote on the intelligence package, despite significant pressure from the media, families of 9/11 victims, the White House and the Senate. He then led negotiations that produced the compromise package that finally passed both chambers.

Among his admirers, the standard explanation of how Hastert is able to get bills passed and keep his troops in line is that he is a strong listener.

“I think he’s still listening. That’s still the hallmark. He’s still more of a listener than he is a Speaker,” said Feehery.

Hastert does spend much more of his time listening than he does distributing orders or meting out punishments. He has compared himself to a school principal, but he sometimes has to play the role of therapist, calming the nervous and steadying the wavering, pressuring the stubborn and rewarding the loyal.

Yet however polished his listening skills may be, Hastert’s patience is not limitless. Nor would it benefit the Conference to have its chief decision-maker presiding over endless chat sessions.

“There is no question that he is a good listener up to a point, but he also does not tolerate bulls–t very well,” said a senior Republican leadership aide.

Of course, the “great listener” label obscures another key to Hastert’s success: his ability to intimidate.

Hastert, a former wrestler and football player, is an imposing physical presence. Like many past Congressional leaders — including O’Neill and former Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas) — he is not averse to using that size to his advantage.

“When he comes to talk to you and he’s in your personal space, that can be intimidating,” said a senior GOP aide.

Indeed, House Democrats hardly subscribe to the theory that Hastert is a teddy bear who enjoys listening to others.

Democrats have complained with increasing frequency that Republicans have run roughshod over their rights, cutting them out of the legislative process whenever possible, even on matters, such as the continuity of Congress following a catastrophe, that are not obviously imbued with partisan divisiveness.

While they have leveled most of their criticism at Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), they have also blamed Hastert. One school of thought posits that, in the words of Congressional scholar and Roll Call contributing writer Norman Ornstein, “no Speaker in modern times has been more partisan and more political, more willing to inject himself into bitter and controversial partisan debates instead of leaving such matters to his Majority Leader and Whip.”

That view is by no means universal. Republicans have defended Hastert by saying that he is trying to protect the House as an institution and that Democrats are the ones who are trying to use partisanship to tear it down.

Indeed, Hastert’s willingness to be partisan — as he was on the post-9/11 intelligence reform bill, when he wouldn’t bring a measure to the floor until it had a majority of GOP support — has helped to foster loyalty among Republican Members.

But while GOP lawmakers like and trust Hastert personally, they don’t follow him just out of fondness.

“When he needs to, he’s very aggressive about how he leads,” said a leadership aide. “People know not to cross him.”

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