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Mild-Mannered Dennis Hastert Faces Hard Tests as House Speaker

He has suffered a series of setbacks. But some say he's doing as well as can be expected, given the slim GOP majority.


WASHINGTON — 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.

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.

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."

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.

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