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It’s Official: GOP Picks Hastert as New Speaker

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Republicans made official on Tuesday their choice of Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) as the next House speaker, opening the way for what his supporters hope will be a kinder, gentler lower chamber in the new Congress.

But analysts and lawmakers say Hastert will face two daunting tasks: To take control of his badly split, often combative party and to reach out to Democrats in an effort to push through major legislation despite a diminished GOP majority.

Those challenges will be heightened by the period of partisan infighting the House has just gone through, capped by the two parties’ bitter clash over the impeachment of President Clinton.

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Hastert, 57, was unanimously designated speaker by other Republican House members at a closed-door caucus Tuesday and will be formally elected to the post when the full House convenes today.

The former high school wrestling coach succeeds Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who resigned after the GOP losses in last fall’s election, and replaces Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), the speaker-designate who gave up the post after acknowledging extramarital affairs.

Hastert, a low-profile, hard-working insider known more as a back-room deal maker than an out-front party leader, is widely respected and well-liked, both by hard-line GOP conservatives and liberal Democrats.

Surrounded by applauding Republicans at a news conference after his selection, Hastert stressed a message of conciliation, saying the GOP needed “to reach across the aisle” to Democrats on many key pieces of legislation.

Nevertheless, even some of Hastert’s closest allies concede that his hopes for a more cooperative, less combative approach may not be embraced by some of his GOP colleagues, who see bashing the Democrats as a primary goal.

“We are not without our partisans, and from time to time they may try to rein in Denny,” said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who shares many of Hastert’s convictions and his more gentlemanly approach to legislating. “I have no doubt that there will be some heartburn on the part of some of our members,” LaHood said in an interview.

Hastert also is expected to restore much of the power that the chairmen of the key House committees lost during the four years that Gingrich was speaker, when a handful of GOP House leaders made many of the big decisions on strategy and legislation.

To some, Hastert’s ascension as speaker is expected to mark a new phase in the GOP’s stewardship of Congress, one in which the party moves from the bold, often contentious proposals of its post-1994 victory to a longer-term--and necessarily more modest--agenda.

Critics say Gingrich, who engineered the “revolution” that pushed the party into power, was well-suited for that role but too strident and aggressive to succeed in running the House. He alienated not only Democrats, but much of the electorate as well.

Within the House, the partisan alienation reached a boiling point during the wrangling over the impeachment of Clinton, with the GOP’s conservative wing leading the drive to bring the president to trial in the Senate despite polls showing the public favored simple censure.

Republicans themselves were thrown for a loop when Livingston--unanimously selected as Gingrich’s replacement less than two months ago--withdrew his speakership candidacy on the morning of the House impeachment votes. He plans to resign from the House in a few months.

Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, believes the difference in style between Hastert and Gingrich may well provide the new speaker with the momentum he needs to establish himself and impose a new working order in the House.

As he watched Hastert on television recently, Sabato said, “I realized that Hastert is the anti-Gingrich, just as [former President] Ford was the anti-Nixon” following Nixon’s resignation as president in 1974. “It’ll carry him a long way,” Sabato said.

Hastert already has sought to distance himself from his predecessor’s manner. “Obviously, everybody develops his own style,” Hastert told reporters earlier this week. “I’m not going to try to emulate Newt or anybody else.”

But Earl Black, a Rice University political scientist, believes the cumulative fallout from the last four years may prove too overwhelming to enable Hastert to be anything more than a caretaker during the current term.

“When you look at all those factors"--the GOP’s reduced majority, the anger over the impeachment issue and the partisanship within the GOP--"it’s hard to see how he’s going to have very many successes,” Black said.

In the new Congress, the House has 223 Republicans and 211 Democrats, plus an independent who usually votes with Democrats. That means that just six Republican defectors will be enough to defeat any GOP initiative.

The conflict over the Senate trial alone is bound to permeate whatever both houses do for the rest of this session, Black asserted. As a result, Hastert “probably is just going to tread water for the next two years” until some of the current anger abates, he said.

Nevertheless, Hastert’s supporters insist that their man may well surprise skeptics--particularly in his ability to muster support behind the scenes for compromise on a difficult issue.

Ed Gillespie, a longtime GOP strategist, concedes there are “no home runs"--such as massive tax-cuts--likely during Hastert’s turn at bat, considering the Republicans’ thin majority, but says there are “a lot of solid singles and doubles out there.”

Hastert’s job will be to keep the Republican majority united and to reach out to enough moderate and conservative Democrats to find consensus measures that have meaning for ordinary Americans, Gillespie says. “I think he’s the guy for that job,” he added.

Moreover, for all Hastert’s talk about bipartisanship, he brings to his new job impeccable credentials as a conservative and a successful stint as a political operative for House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas)--leader of the hard-line Republican faction.

Indeed, DeLay was a major player in openly pushing Hastert’s candidacy for speaker on the day that Livingston stepped down, preempting other would-be nominees, including Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach).


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