To get work done, GOP turns to its new Speaker

Hastert steps into spotlight to help party tone down rhetoric, seekcompromise.

It was the fourth inning of a packed Chicago Cubs game last September, and fans were wildly cheering for Sammy Sosa to hit another record-breaking home run.

But Rep. Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois, interviewed live at the crowded stadium, had something less than history-making baseball on his mind: He talked about HMO legislation.

"That's Denny. He's a nuts-and-bolts guy," says Rep. Fred Upton (R) of Michigan, a friend who was at the game with Mr. Hastert.

Though perhaps uninspiring to Cubs fans, the new House Speaker's reputation as a nose-to-the-grindstone legislator is one the Republican Party now badly wants to co-opt. As the GOP seeks to transform its public image from the party of impeachment to the party of accomplishment, it is pinning its hopes on the brass tacks, businesslike Hastert.

"My mantra is that we get our work done on time," Hastert said yesterday on "Fox News Sunday." After weeks of behind-the-scenes preparation, Hastert in recent days has begun stepping into the media limelight for the first time.

Kinder, gentler GOP

Many Republicans, especially moderates, are counting on Hastert to rescue the party from potential political disaster. The GOP must tone down its rhetoric, cease partisan bickering, and find grounds for legislative compromise and success, they say. Otherwise, it is likely to lose its slim 222-to-211 margin and control of the House of Representatives in the 2000 election, they warn.

"It's pretty clear that we would lose the House if the election were held today," says former GOP Rep. Steve Gunderson, executive director of a moderate group of elected officials and businesspeople called The Republican Main Street Partnership.

"We need to lower the rhetoric and the perception that we are mean and divisive," he says. "The American people want results. We've got to govern."

Hastert will have an opportunity to set the tone of his leadership this week. Tomorrow he is expected to join a meeting with President Clinton, House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri, and Senate leaders in their first attempt to work on a common legislative agenda since impeachment proceedings ended.

Need for compromise

A smiling Hastert yesterday stressed the need for compromise. "I think the American people want this Congress, whether you are Democrat or Republican, to get something done ... at least there is a mutual set of goals," he said. He outlined flexible positions on several key issues:

*On Social Security, he said "at least" 62 percent of the budget surplus - the amount called for by Mr. Clinton - should be set aside for saving the nation's retirement system. Underscoring the need for stability, he said a plan to shore up Social Security should not involve raising taxes or changing benefits.

Still, he dismissed as "a nonstarter" the president's proposal to allow the federal government to invest some Social Security funds in the financial markets, saying Republicans prefer letting individuals make those choices.

*On taxes, Hastert also emphasized a middle-of-the-road approach, saying he favored a "little mix of tax relief" that could include the across-the-board cut favored by many Republicans as well as targeted relief advocated by Democrats. Specifically, he mentioned ending the marriage penalty and lowering capital gains and inheritance taxes.

* On wages, Hastert declined to rule out a Democratic plan to raise the minimum wage, saying only that Congress should find "a balance" between ensuring adequate wages and the supply of entry-level jobs.

The job of House Speaker is quite a leap for the low-key Midwesterner. Only a few months ago, the man who enjoys carving wooden ducks and fishing on the Fox River with his children was in line only to be a relatively lowly House committee chairman - now he is third in line to be president.

"This is more than a little change in lifestyle. More than just a new haircut and a few new suits," jests Representative Upton, who sat next to Hastert on the commerce subcommittee for eight years.

But the lumbering former high school wrestling coach is the right man for the job, GOP lawmakers say. "We need a workhorse, not a show horse," says Gunderson, whose organization includes more than 50 members of Congress and governors.

A long-time school teacher, Hastert is a quiet study in contrasts with his predecessor, Newt Gingrich, many Republicans agree. "He's certainly not the vocal lightning rod that Newt Gingrich was," says Rep. Matt Salmon (R) of Arizona.

That bodes well for bipartisanship, GOP members say. They note that unlike Mr. Gingrich, who attempted to exclude Democrats from the lawmaking process, Hastert in his first speech on the House floor as Speaker pledged to meet Democrats halfway.

Whereas Gingrich had infrequent, icy relations with House minority leader Gephardt, Hastert has already had several meetings with him and the two men seem to get along.

Moreover, as a Republican Party leader known to some as "Teddy Bear," Hastert has a softer touch than House majority whip Tom DeLay (R) of Texas, a quality that may make it easier for him to heal rifts within the GOP, colleagues say.

"Tom DeLay is 'the Hammer.' He'll put your fingers in the door and slam it," says Upton. "Denny will put his paw around your shoulder and talk the issues out with you."

Hastert's persuasive skills are likely to be especially important in winning cooperation from conservatives, whose family and social agenda has in recent years jammed up the legislative works.

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