Six months into his fourth term atop the House, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has been forced to adopt a more hands-on leadership style, holding more one-on-one meetings with disgruntled lawmakers and personally intervening to put out fires within the Republican Conference.
Hastert has always had an open-door policy for Members to air their concerns. But senior GOP lawmakers and aides said the Speaker has been called on to settle far more thorny issues this year as his party has faced an embarrassing reversal of ethics rules, scrutiny of Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), nervousness about Social Security reform and, most recently, a divisive vote on stem-cell research.
“We’ve obviously had some controversial and contentious issues recently,” said a House Republican lawmaker, who said that it was his impression that Hastert’s increased number of meetings was “more Member-driven than Speaker-driven.”
On a broad level, Hastert has worked to keep his Members focused as they enjoy their largest majority since 1996. With a historically tough election on tap next year and President Bush now essentially a lame duck, there are more temptations for Republican lawmakers to try to boost their profiles by breaking from their party.
The focus on DeLay’s troubles and always-present questions about when Hastert will retire have also created widespread speculation about who will hold what leadership job in the 110th Congress. On top of that, the race to be the next House GOP Conference chairman has already begun, as have contests for a handful of key committee gavels.
“Our guys are talking too much about what they’re going to be in ’07 instead of what we are in ’05,” complained a Republican lawmaker who is close to the leadership. “A number of Members appear to be projecting themselves out into future jobs.”
Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said the recent GOP infighting reminded him of House Democrats’ situation in the 1980s, when he was a staffer for then Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.).
“The various Democratic factions were the whole game because they controlled everything,” Kirk recalled.
Kirk was in the middle of the most recent squabble Hastert had to quell — last week’s controversial stem-cell vote.
In that case, Hastert caused some consternation among conservatives when he consented to moderates’ demands for a floor vote. But he was able to minimize the political fallout from the vote by scheduling it as early in the year as possible, getting it out of the way before the Memorial Day recess when interest groups on both sides of the issue could besiege Members in their districts seeking to sway their votes.
And when conservatives rose up to complain about the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership conducting polls in their districts, Hastert personally intervened to calm the waters.
“When we had an argument break out he brought all the affected Members into his office to work it out,” Kirk said. “But for his leadership, things might have gotten a lot worse.”
For his part, Hastert told the weekly Conference meeting Wednesday that the stem-cell debate was the hallmark of a “mature majority” in which both conservatives and moderates made valuable contributions.
He recalled that when Democrats were in power, Republicans were sometimes able to pick off factions of the majority to exert their own influence on the legislative process.
In contrast, Hastert argued, Republicans have mostly been able to keep their differences in-house, making Tuesday’s stem-cell vote one of only a handful of examples where numerous Republicans defected to vote with Democrats.
Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean suggested that his boss has been busier of late because House Republicans have had such a crowded legislative agenda.
“The Speaker has always been hands-on, but has been more so recently because of all of our accomplishments this Congress,” Bonjean said.
The stem-cell gathering Hastert convened was only one of several such meetings he has held in recent months to soothe hurt feelings or listen to Members’ concerns.
Some lawmakers also report that they have seen Hastert on the floor more often than usual, circulating among Members and taking the pulse of the Conference.
While moderates had their day during the stem-cell debate, Hastert also had to quell something of a conservative uprising earlier this year, when a group of Republican Study Committee members threatened to vote against the budget unless they were granted a series of procedural reforms.
While Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) negotiated the final compromise in that case, RSC Chairman Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said that the negotiations reminded him of something he realized years ago: that Hastert is firmly in charge, even if he doesn’t always seek out the spotlight.
Pence, who only because RSC chairman this year, said that after the budget dispute was over, he had coffee with Hastert in the Speaker’s office.
On the way out the door, Pence recalled, Hastert slapped him on the shoulder and said, “This leadership thing is a little harder than you thought it was, isn’t it?”