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Mild-Mannered Dennis Hastert Faces Hard Tests as House Speaker

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The familiar opening scene from “Patton"--with actor George C. Scott striding forward in front of a screen-filling U.S. flag--ends abruptly, replaced by a close-up of Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.), wearing a silver helmet and a medal-covered Army uniform.

“All right . . . I want you to go out there now and stop your whining,” Tauzin barks in a video intended to inspire GOP lawmakers and congressional candidates. His mock tongue-lashing includes a bid for unity: “Stand by your leadership!” he admonishes as the tape, commissioned by House Republican bosses, rolls to a close.

Both the imagery and the message are inadvertently laden with irony: By broad agreement, the man who should be the symbol of the GOP’s control of the House, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, is no George Patton. And some critics question whether the affable, mild-mannered Hastert has exerted leadership worth backing.

Hastert, a former high school wrestling coach thrust into the job in January after the resignation of Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), has amassed a decidedly mixed record--and a reputation as a well-meaning manager who, perhaps through little fault of his own, has proved relatively ineffectual.

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Charles E. Cook Jr., a Washington political analyst, said expectations that Hastert would mold the House into a more bipartisan institution and push through major legislation with the cooperation of both parties turned out to be “wishful thinking.” But he also defended Hastert as having achieved “about as much as anyone could” under the circumstances.

Budget Crisis Brewing

This week, Hastert enters a crucial phase of the current session, facing a potentially major clash between Congress and the White House over spending priorities. Similar impasses in 1995 and 1996 led to the shutdown of the government--and a political backlash against the GOP.

How Hastert navigates the brewing crisis offers the sternest test of his leadership--and may well determine his long-range prospects for effectively running the House.

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Based on his performance to date, few are willing to predict the outcome.

On one hand, the 57-year-old Hastert has achieved what backers had hoped would be the most visible aspect of his speakership: He has not behaved like Gingrich, whose aggressive, run-the-House-like-a-general style grated on Republicans and Democrats alike.

At the same time, Hastert has suffered a series of visible legislative setbacks that often have left him with political egg on his face.

Hamstrung by the slimmest House majority in 44 years, Hastert has had to shift his tactics on a politically important gun control measure, revamp his strategy for getting money bills passed and take flak from all sides for the House’s failure to endorse President Clinton’s Balkans campaign while U.S. troops were facing danger.

Perhaps more damaging, he also is battling a growing perception that Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is actually in charge of the House and that Hastert himself is little more than a front man for the combative conservative.

Hastert freely conceded that his style and Gingrich’s are sharply different: Whereas the Georgian set a clear agenda and demanded adherence to it, his successor has adopted a much more laissez-faire approach. Hastert insisted that, with a thin six-vote margin and a GOP rank and file that is splintered, listening to, and accommodating, various factions is the only way to get the job done.

He also denied that it is DeLay who runs the House. “All of us in the leadership are constantly conferring with one another,” he said in an interview with The Times. But ultimately, “I make the decisions.”

Marshall Wittmann, an analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, argued that Hastert’s low-key style “is probably the only kind of leadership style that can survive in this kind of political environment.”

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Ron Peters, a congressional scholar at the University of Oklahoma, agreed. By almost any standard, he said, the new speaker has had to cope with some serious handicaps that might well have impeded anyone who took the job:

* Plucked from a behind-the-scenes job as deputy GOP whip, Hastert never had time to develop his own internal House “constituency” of personally loyal lawmakers. Gingrich earned such loyalty by engineering the 1994 election sweep that brought Republicans to power.

* The House’s legendary speakers--such as Joseph G. Cannon (R-Ill.) and Sam Rayburn (D-Texas)--had far larger working majorities than Hastert. “Take a guy like Denny Hastert and give him a 50-seat majority and he’d be regarded as a great speaker,” Peters said.

* House Democrats, despite an earlier call for bipartisan cooperation, clearly have decided that they have more to gain by obstructing GOP efforts to pass legislation. They have been unwilling to support Hastert on most issues, making coalition-building that much more difficult.

These factors have left him unable to withstand even a handful of GOP defections. Given that, his willingness to deal with dissenting factions has served him well occasionally. In June, for example, Hastert quelled a conservative rebellion over spending bills by pulling an agricultural appropriation measure from the floor and nudging budget-hawks into a compromise in which he pledged to accommodate many of their concerns.

But some critics argued that his technique also can be a handicap. As one House veteran put it: “There are times when you have to be an SOB to be a successful speaker. And I’m not sure that Denny is capable of being an SOB.”

For all the trouble DeLay has caused him, for example, Hastert has yet to order him to stay away from an issue, according to House insiders. He has not, as Gingrich did, punished members who flouted the leadership’s wishes. And he has been reluctant to use the House Rules Committee, which controls the flow of legislation, to block bills he does not like.

In his interview with The Times, Hastert shrugged off the brickbats. “When it comes to being tough, I can be tough. I’m fairly low-key, but I’m not a pushover. If I have to be tough to get things done, I’ll do that. But I’m not screaming and yelling. That’s not my way.”

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True, he has taken some steps to deal with criticisms of his tenure. He has begun announcing his position on key issues at the start of debate, rather than waiting for the vote to reveal it. He has been on more television talk shows. And he has stepped up his appearances at fund-raising events.

Still, he has not seriously altered his style, either by trying to arm-twist, or even threaten, would-be defectors or by moving to clip DeLay’s wings, other than by occasionally hinting that he needs the Texan to be “on the team” on a specific bill.

Hastert said it is “just not the case” that DeLay is running the House. And Republicans of all stripes argued that critics who make that assessment are too simplistic. Rather, these Republicans suggested, DeLay’s reputation as kingpin has come more from rushing in to fill a vacuum when Hastert has overlooked something or been too distracted to weigh in himself.

Lawmakers who know both men well pointed out another reality: While Hastert may be less combative than DeLay, he is just as conservative on most issues. “Their relationship is more symbiotic than it is one of the speaker playing second fiddle,” said one House Republican close to the leaders. “They’ve worked together for a long time, and they often end up on the same side of an issue.”

An ‘Antidote’ to Gingrich

Publicly, Republicans seem satisfied enough. Rep. James A. Leach (R-Iowa), a moderate who has differed with Hastert on some issues, contended that the speaker is proving to be an “extraordinarily positive antidote” to Gingrich. All factions now believe “that they’re getting the access they need,” Leach said. “Members are more collegial, less bitter.”

But privately, some Republicans conceded the downside to the speaker’s style. Asked whether Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), the GOP’s initial choice as speaker who never assumed the post and resigned his House seat over extramarital affairs, would have done better in the current environment, one House veteran snapped: “Sure he would. He knew how to use power, and he did it every day as Appropriations [Committee] chairman.”

Hastert’s newest test begins this week as the House moves toward what budget analysts warn could be a budgetary “train wreck": the clash between the bloated appropriation bills that many lawmakers, including some Republicans, want and the stringent limits on specific spending categories that Congress vowed to maintain in its 1997 budget deal with Clinton.

The GOP could be faced with the choice of breaching the spending limits, yielding to Clinton’s priorities in the process or--if the House leaders agree on Draconian cutbacks--risking another government shutdown. Any of these scenarios could spark a backlash against the party.

The best strategy for Hastert, analyst Wittmann contended, is more of the same. “He’ll have to play it by ear and play it day by day.”


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