House's formidable odd couple

Hastert is seen as the 'good cop,' DeLay as the 'bad cop.' United, they willaid Bush.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In a congressional season when the political landscape looks as turned over as the grounds under construction outside the Capitol building, a soft-spoken lawmaker from Illinois is the most stable feature on the horizon - and a key to how the president's agenda plays out in Congress.

He is J. Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the House of Representatives and perhaps the most consistently underestimated man on Capitol Hill.

When he took over as Speaker after Newt Gingrich stepped down in 1998, many saw Mr. Hastert as a weak interim figure. The un-Newt. Not scary. He was, it was whispered, a place holder for the next Newt, Tom "the Hammer" DeLay.

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But rather than taking a place in the shadow of the feisty Texan, Hastert appears to be firming up a formidable partnership as he holds the Speaker's role and Mr. Delay moves from Republican whip to majority leader.

The two are sure to face determined Democratic opposition and, sometimes, assertive GOP committee chairs with agendas of their own. Nor do they always see eye to eye with each other or with President Bush.

Yet this legislative odd couple has already proved it can forge slim House majorities into a powerful tool for party-line politics.

Working with only a six-vote margin in the last Congress, Hastert and DeLay showered the Senate with bills on issues ranging from prescription-drug benefits for seniors to energy policy. Republicans used that backlog to portray the Democratic-controlled Senate as a "graveyard" for legislation in the 2002 campaign.

With Republicans jumping from 223 to 229 in the new Congress, the House will be in an even stronger position to advance the White House agenda.

Big wins for the partnership include the president's request for fast-track trade authority, which passed twice on nail-biting votes. Their biggest loss was a miscalculation over the intensity of support for campaign-finance reform, which the GOP House leadership fought to the last. In the end, supporters forced the bill to a vote on the floor by the rare use of a discharge petition.

Tough cop/soft cop

At the core of this partnership is a sharp contrast of political sensibilities and a formidable legislative operation: Call it soft cop/tough cop managing a small army of listeners and vote counters, with pizza and ribs on the side.

A former exterminator in Sugar Land, Texas, DeLay is a hard-edged political operator with a gift for counting votes and turning complicated issues into kitchen-table topics. He often avoids national news media in favor of talking to voters directly through networks of small local radio stations.

He also cultivates - and threatens - Washington lobbyists: Some are invited to consult on legislation and contribute (lavishly) to GOP coffers; others are lambasted for giving to Democrats or hiring too many former Democratic staffers in their K Street offices. "People are afraid of him," says Jim Albertine, outgoing president of the American League of Lobbyists.

Despite his reputation as a polarizing figure, DeLay has won respect from Democrats for candor and hard work. "He has been very effective, and you have to acknowledge they've lost very few votes," says Rep. Bob Etheridge of North Carolina, who just joined the whip operation for House Democrats. Others admire his strong personal commitment to helping foster children, especially in a troubled D.C .system.

A former champion high school wrestling coach, Hastert is warm, patient, avuncular, and has an almost misleading big ol' teddy bear look and style. He's also one of the party's top negotiators and a formidable opponent in his own right. He came up the GOP ranks through DeLay's whip operation, as top deputy, and sat at Gingrich's 12-ideas-a-minute leadership table.

Right man for the job

After both Gingrich and Speaker-designate Bob Livingston resigned, DeLay promoted Hastert for the top job. Colleagues agreed he was the one who could unite the conference.

"When I took over as Speaker, there was a lot of finger pointing. We had just come out of the impeachment process, and we hadn't got much done," says Hastert in an interview.

"Hastert-DeLay is a good team, but Hastert probably doesn't get enough credit," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. Hastert, like Michel - his Illinois mentor - "were not far out in public, but conveyed quiet authority," he adds.

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