Reluctant leader of a rambunctious House

New Speaker's low-key style leaves light imprint on House. Some say his

A former high-school wrestling coach, House Speaker Dennis Hastert definitely retains a passion for the sport. So much so that he even skipped out of a House "civility" weekend retreat this spring to watch the NCAA wrestling championship at Penn State University.

But five months into his new job, Speaker Hastert is wrestling with accusations that his leadership is suffering from a lack of hammer-lock assertiveness and legislative body throws.

The low-profile Midwesterner has been accused of hanging back too much, allowing more forceful yet partisan personalities such as House whip Tom DeLay to come to the fore. Doubts are also emerging over how much of Hastert's legislative agenda he can accomplish in a House defined by the slim 222-to-211 Republican majority.

Hastert's defenders, while granting that the Speaker lacks leadership experience, insist the cautious, methodical lawmaker from Illinois is the right man at the right time. "The bottom line is that, after four turbulent years, Republicans in the House are looking for someone to get back to basics," says former GOP Rep. Bill Paxton.

Major criticisms of Hastert first erupted after he declined to go to the mat to support a key House vote April 28 on whether to back the bombing in Yugoslavia. Hastert, who later said he regretted his inaction, voted silently and then watched his position fail - thanks in part to opposition from Representative DeLay - with a frustratingly close 213-to-213 tie vote.

Democrats seized upon the vote to level charges that the feisty DeLay of Texas, an outspoken conservative and foe of President Clinton, is the real power behind the throne in the House. "The extreme right wing of the Republican Party remains in control of that party," said House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri. Media commentators also chimed in, with a New York Times editorial titled "Speaker Hastert, AWOL," asserting that Hastert has "yielded his authority" to DeLay.

The Speaker's allies call the reports of abrogated leadership overblown. Hastert and DeLay "have a superb relationship," says Mr. Paxton, who knows both men well. "They are the closest of any two leaders in recent history in Congress."

Nevertheless, few would deny that Hastert relies heavily on DeLay, who runs one of the most effective vote-counting operations ever on Capitol Hill. Indeed, backing from DeLay's whipping organization was crucial in securing the Speakership for Hastert, who was then DeLay's chief deputy whip and did not actively seek the post.

"DeLay is the navigator and the head counter," says Marshall Wittmann, director of congressional relations at the Heritage Foundation here. Hastert makes the final decisions on whether to move bills, but "relies on DeLay to get a feel for how far he can go and where the votes are."

To hear some Republicans describe him, Hastert is a leader, but a somewhat reluctant one. "When it gets down to it and the party clearly needs some leadership, he's willing to do it," says John McKernan, a former GOP congressman and former governor of Maine.

LAST week, for example, Hastert stared down the Senate's senior member, Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, on an issue of legislative "pork." Hastert demanded that Senator Byrd drop a $1 billion loan-guarantee program for steel companies from the big emergency-spending bill. Outmaneuvered at first, Hastert later got his way.

Hastert has also taken a bold position by signaling this week he is willing for the House to entertain some gun-control measures, such as background checks on sales at gun shows, despite his past opposition to major gun controls.

For the most part, however, Hastert's low-key style, especially in contrast to his predecessor, Newt Gingrich, makes him an easy target for critics who say the House has a leadership void. Many GOP House members, however, appear happy with the switch.

Unlike Mr. Gingrich, Hastert is no grandstander. Instead, some Republicans say he brings skills learned as a wrestling coach. Rather than throwing his own weight around, he cajoles from behind the scenes to get the best out of his team. "He's a coach, and he understands the psychology of bringing people together," says Mr. McKernan.

Indeed, Hastert describes himself as a referee. "Most of the time ... I'm the referee, settling little crises between members of Congress, members of the administration," Hastert told suburban Chicago students last week, according to a Chicago newspaper.

Republican lawmakers say they appreciate Hastert's humble, nonconfrontational style.

Rep. Fred Upton (R) of Michigan, a close colleague of Hastert, says the new Speaker is "not enamored with ego or power." Compared with DeLay, whose nickname is "the Hammer," Hastert is a listener rather than an arm-twister, he says.

At the same time, by staying out of the media, Hastert is avoiding the negative headlines Gingrich generated. "You never get in trouble for what you don't say," says McKernan.

Above all, Hastert's approach as Speaker is not to air grand ideological platforms, but to overcome partisanship and show that Republicans can pass laws and govern - something GOP members applaud him for.

Hastert's legislative mantra includes four key goals: boosting "security" in the areas of national defense, education, income (that is, tax relief), and retirement.

Congress has made some notable, although not major, headway on these goals. Hastert has mustered enough support to win votes for large increases in defense spending, and a law to give local school districts greater autonomy. But on a tax cut, which many Republicans view as essential, unity continues to elude Hastert.

Hastert is also proud of a basic but unusual achievement: keeping the budgetary trains running on time. Yet appropriators are warning that Congress is heading for a crash at the end of the line, when billions in budgetary needs hit tight spending caps agreed to in 1997.

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