WASHINGTON — The man who is likely to become the next speaker of the House is a former high school wrestling coach with a gentle, bear-hug manner who can gingerly arm-twist fellow lawmakers into supporting key legislative measures and still leave them smiling.
On the surface, Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) may seem more ferocious than he actually is. For the last four years, he has served as chief deputy to House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), regarded as one of the most conservative--and aggressive--GOP leaders in Congress.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 22, 1998 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Retiree earnings--In a story in Monday's editions, The Times incorrectly reported that Social Security recipients who work lose benefits this year after earning $30,000. The correct figure is $14,500 for 1998. It becomes $15,500 in 1999 and increases in steps to $30,000 in 2002.
But even moderate lawmakers insist that Hastert, a soft-spoken, pragmatic and genial man, is more in the tradition of retired House Republican leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), the gentlemanly Peorian who was his mentor before the GOP takeover of the House in 1994.
Hastert may not be the most dynamic personality among House Republicans, but he is widely liked, and respected, as a man who can get along with almost everyone.
"There is zero meanness in his spirit," said Rep. James A. Leach (R-Iowa), a well-regarded moderate with similar ties among virtually all factions in Congress. "I think people are looking for decency."
Hastert's reputation as a consensus builder--and the endorsement of House leaders ranging from DeLay to outgoing Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.)--already has given him the momentum needed to virtually guarantee his selection when Republicans caucus Jan. 5.
Still, analysts say Hastert will have his hands full, if as expected, he becomes speaker of the House of Representatives in the 106th Congress.
Roger H. Davidson, a University of Maryland Congress-watcher, said that despite Hastert's strong reputation for decency, he still "is going to have to prove to people across the aisle [Democrats] that he isn't just a tool of Tom DeLay."
Davidson said Hastert also is going to have to develop some sort of public persona. Without a GOP president to set the tone for the party, "Republicans badly need some compelling congressional leaders with a positive image," Davidson said.
"It would be good for the Republicans if he developed some sort of public persona that would be able to communicate what Republicans want to do with the government," he added.
But Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, predicted that Hastert's low profile may be a real asset. With Congress so evenly divided, Sabato said, his soft-spoken manner "may be perfectly suited" to the GOP's needs.
Even so, the tumult of recent days shows that individuals--and events--do not always turn out as expected.
The previous speaker-designate, Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), was widely declared to be ideal for the leadership post because of his own pragmatic ability to work with diverse members--before his marital infidelities were disclosed.
Hastert, a 56-year-old onetime state legislator who was elected to Congress in 1986, declared his candidacy for the speaker's job on Saturday in a preemptive strike, stepping forward only a few hours after Livingston announced that he was withdrawing.
By the end of the day, Hastert had garnered the support of more than 100 House Republicans of all stripes, including more than half a dozen moderates--easily overwhelming two other would-be speakers, GOP Reps. Christopher Cox of Newport Beach, and Oklahoman Steve Largent.
Conspicuous in Hastert's campaign statement was a pledge to "make a particular effort to build bridges across the aisle, not just to pass legislation, but to ensure that common-sense ideas and principles become law."
"There's no question that in a six-seat [Republican] majority, our ability to work with all viewpoints and to listen to all members will be of the utmost importance," he said. "Our foremost guiding principle is to do what's best for all Americans."
Indeed, some analysts believe that one of Hastert's most delicate challenges will be to overcome some suspicion in the party's aggressive right wing, which was instrumental in prompting the departure of Gingrich and Livingston.
Although Hastert, an evangelical Christian, has been consistently conservative on social issues, including abortion, he has reached out to Republicans and Democrats of all stripes in brokering deals on issues such as health care, Social Security and anti-drug enforcement.
In 1994, Hastert led the Republican opposition to President Clinton's omnibus health-care bill. This year, he helped craft a GOP alternative to Clinton's HMO reform bill, though in the end, neither Clinton's plan nor Hastert's was adopted.
Hastert also headed a GOP task force that spawned legislation to beef up anti-drug technology at the U.S.-Mexico border.
On an issue likely to be at center stage next year, he was responsible, in 1996, for Social Security legislation that raised the limit on how much recipients may earn without losing any of their benefits. Hastert would like to see the ceiling even higher. It now stands at $30,000, up from $11,520 before.