By Patrick OConnor - 05/25/06 12:00 AM EDT
House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) will be forever linked to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), his tough former majority leader. The controversial Texan has upstaged his Speaker in the public eye for much of Hastert’s tenure.
In leadership, they became one of the odd couples of politics, with Hastert playing the folksy and avuncular “Coach” opposite “The Hammer.” But those roles misrepresent the men and their relationship as leaders.
“It’s kind of fun to be described as ‘The Hammer,’ but it doesn’t describe how I operate here,” DeLay said. “That’s not what we did.”
With DeLay preoccupied last year with his own problems, the Speaker shouldered more responsibility, but his hands-off leadership was blamed for some of the party’s stumbles.
“It’s been a tough year,” Hastert said in an interview last week. “When Tom stepped down, we were almost paralyzed for a while. … I had to step in the gap.”
When DeLay resigns next month, the focus will shift more squarely to his successor, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), and to Hastert’s work as Speaker.
“It’s my intent to serve, if I’m elected,” said Hastert, who will become the longest-serving Republican Speaker in House history on June 1. “I hope also, when I leave this place, if and when that happens, there [are] really good people in place to step up and do the job.”
“We’ve been partners,” DeLay said. “I tend to be a little overaggressive. He is a strong, stabilizing force.”
Hastert echoed that assessment, saying, “Tom was a confrontational guy. I was the guy that kind of came around the back and talked to people and got stuff done. So we had a good relationship. We understood each other. We trusted each other.”
John Feehery, a longtime leadership aide who worked for both men, said: “Denny and Tom made a great team because they brought different strengths to the table. DeLay was a provocateur who fired up the base and attracted a lot of heat from the media. Hastert is a media-shy workhorse who keeps his nose to the grindstone and focuses on getting the job done.”
Hastert and DeLay worked together on the unsuccessful bid of former Rep. Ed Madigan (R) to become minority whip in 1989, when the Illinois lawmaker came within two votes of beating then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). DeLay then tapped Hastert to run his campaign for whip in 1993 after then-Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.) announced he would retire.
DeLay, who knew he had strong support from conservatives in the Southern and Western states, said he picked Hastert because he could attract support from centrists in the Midwest. During that race, Hastert’s chief of staff, Scott Palmer, maintained the list of DeLay’s supporters, one former leadership aide said.
Upon winning the whip’s race, DeLay chose Hastert to be his chief deputy whip and Palmer joined the whip staff as Hastert’s chief of staff and DeLay’s deputy chief of staff. Palmer, who has been with Hastert since his first bid for the Illinois Statehouse, declined DeLay’s offer to leave Hastert and join his staff full time, two former leadership aides said.
Hastert and DeLay built one of the most revered whip organizations in House history. “He impressed me with his vote counting,” DeLay said of Hastert. “He’s one of the best.”
‘DIDN’T COUNT A VOTE FOR HIM.’
When Gingrich stepped down as Speaker, DeLay said, he decided not to run for the job, and he stuck with the decision after then-Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) told his whip he was planning to resign.
“I was too nuclear,” DeLay said. “That’s not what the conference needed.”
As word of Livingston’s resignation spread, members, including DeLay, turned to Hastert.
The two huddled with then-Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.) as members flocked to Hastert’s Capitol office to throw their support behind him. When Hastert said his wife, Jean, would have reservations, Paxon slipped out to call her to assure her that members overwhelmingly supported her husband.
Despite his urging, DeLay said he did not work other members on Hastert’s behalf. “I didn’t get one vote for him,” DeLay said. “I thought it was important he get his own votes.”
Instead, DeLay told Hastert and Paxon that he had to return to Houston that afternoon. Later, Hastert started making calls from his desk in the whip’s office, DeLay and Paxon said.
Asked why he left before the outcome was known, DeLay said, “So he could be his own man.”
While other members considered bids, Hastert was the obvious choice for most members. As media outlets got word that he would likely succeed Livingston, calls flooded into Hastert’s office seeking information about the little-known lawmaker. That night, Hastert was forced to leave his car at the Capitol when his security detail drove him home.
Like any newly elected leader, Hastert took time to settle as Speaker.
During one vote early on, supporting President Bill Clinton’s peacekeeping effort in Kosovo, Hastert told members to vote their conscience because the issue was too contentious to make a party-line vote. DeLay, a vocal opponent of intervention, whipped against the bill on the House floor, forcing deadlock at 213-213.
That created a widely held perception that DeLay, not Hastert, was in charge.
As the Speaker and his staff became more comfortable and confident, Hastert took a more dominant role in his relationship with his whip. He tasked DeLay, a former appropriator, with ensuring that appropriations bills reached the floor on budget and with sufficient support.
After DeLay bucked Republican leadership and President Bush on No Child Left Behind, the signature education program of Bush’s first year in office, Hastert named his whip as a conferee in House-Senate negotiations on the Medicare prescription-drug bill to ensure DeLay would not abandon the legislation, which was already unpopular among conservatives, one former leadership aide said.
DeLay became one of the bill’s biggest backers, and was slapped on the wrist by the ethics committee for promising on the House floor to support the campaign of the son of Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) if the elder Smith voted for the bill.
Hastert was also the go-between in a feud between DeLay and former Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas). The two Texans, both elected to Congress in 1984, had become estranged after an aborted coup to oust Gingrich in which they both played uncertain roles. Hastert maintained a good relationship with both. In addition, Palmer and Armey’s chief of staff, David Hobbs, forged a strong working relationship and remain close friends.
When Hastert and DeLay finally hit their stride, the Speaker became a counterbalance to the often-aggressive majority leader. DeLay said Hastert would occasionally tell him to slow down.
“He’s not one to go off half-cocked,” DeLay said of the Speaker’s deliberate nature and curiosity about every side of a debate. “In that we complemented each other.”
“I felt that my job was to take as much burden off his shoulders that I could,” DeLay said.
As Hastert and DeLay settled in to their separate roles — and caricatures — the two men became more reliant on each other in the day-to-day operation of the House.
Hastert allowed DeLay and his supporters to change conference rules allowing an indicted member of the leadership to remain in his post before a member and media backlash forced DeLay to rescind that change. Hastert then backtracked on proposed changes to House rules that would have changed the way the ethics committee operates.
The rest of 2005 was a flood of negative news tying DeLay to convicted former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Then, last fall, DeLay was indicted by a Texas grand jury for his alleged role in a plot to funnel illegal corporate campaign contributions to Republican Statehouse candidates. The indictment forced the majority leader to relinquish his leadership post, creating a void that sent the party into a brief tailspin.
Before that indictment was announced, the Speaker and his staff had devised a plan to name Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) as the interim majority leader, but when they first posed the idea to Dreier on the eve of DeLay’s indictment, the Rules chairman said no, Dreier said earlier this month. After some coaxing, he agreed to the temporary promotion, but Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, both reportedly raised objections and the Speaker shifted course and named Blunt as the interim leader.
As Blunt adjusted to his new role as leader and whip, Hastert involved himself with more of the day-to-day details of running the conference. It was a rocky fall, but he and the other leaders were able to accomplish many of their legislative priorities, including a cut of $39 billion in mandatory spending from the federal budget.
“First of all, it was hard to do anything and get credit for anything because of what the press was,” Hastert said.
Throughout this uncertain phase, Hastert never pressured DeLay to step aside or to resign his leadership post permanently; instead, he let the former majority leader determine his own fate.
“We were reluctant to weigh in,” one Hastert aide said. “This has to be a conference issue.”
When it finally became clear that the case against him in Texas would not be resolved quickly, DeLay announced that he would not mount a campaign to return to leadership, sparking an immediate race to replace him.
That week, Abramoff pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges, prompting Hastert, Dreier and their staffs to draft a strict lobbying reform proposal that members immediately rejected. The difficulties on that legislation were set against the backdrop of a leadership race in which ethics and the lobbying scandal were a key issue. The bill became significantly less stringent by the time it reached the House floor in April, winning narrow approval.
“We made some decisions,” Hastert said of his office’s taking the lead on lobbying reform. “A lot of our members had different ideas about what they wanted to do. You just had to keep the pressure on. … I would have liked to have it introduced in January and have it done in February. … It was April before we ever got that legislation done.”
Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean said the Speaker’s decision to roll out an aggressive lobbying-reform proposal the weekend after the Abramoff plea successfully beat Democrats to the punch and allowed Republicans some breathing room on the thorny issue.
Throughout that difficult stretch, DeLay said, his relationship with Hastert remained strong.
“I think it drew us closer,” DeLay said. “He assumed the responsibility, and it was all on his shoulders. It was awful for him.”
Throughout the spring, Hastert, Boehner and their staffs have built a sturdy working relationship.
“John took a little time to get his feet underneath him, but he’s doing a great job,” Hastert said. “We have a really great relationship.”
Triumphs on the budget and lobbying reform overall were signals to both men that Boehner has arrived in the new job.
At a recent leadership meeting, Boehner thanked the Speaker, the other leaders and the entire leadership staff for all their help in easing that transition. He said Hastert expects the majority leader to take care of the important day-to-day details of running the House.
“Denny’s style is to let the majority leader lead,” Boehner said earlier this week.
The Speaker, meanwhile, is adjusting to Boehner’s new style of leadership, in which the conference engages in more open discussions about the direction of the party.
“John is certainly a different personality than Tom DeLay,” Hastert said, adding, “This is bigger than personalities.”
With the focus shifting more squarely to Boehner, Hastert’s own tenure as Speaker will become a bigger question for the members of his conference, especially if they retain the House in November.
The Speaker has shown fatigue this past year, and members have real concerns about his health — he is diabetic and makes regular visits to a chiropractor.
In addition, many of the members and staffers whom he and his staff have worked closely with have moved off the Hill.
“Since I’ve been Speaker, almost all of the chairmen have changed, so you’re dealing with different personalities,” Hastert said.
Asked last week whether he would fulfill his commitment to Bush to remain Speaker through the 110th Congress, the Speaker hinted that he may not be around much longer.
“Whatever you do in this business, people aren’t permanent,” Hastert said. “People come and go, and you have to have … the right people in place, and the type of leadership in place when you do go or you have to go, that the place can run and be successful.”
After discussing his role as a mentor to the members, Hastert revisited the question.
“But if I make a commitment to run, I’m going to run,” Hastert said. “I’ll serve that term, unless something happens.”
“This is a confidence business, too,” Hastert said. “If people lose confidence in you, you should move on or do something else.”
A hallmark of Hastert’s leadership has always been his ability to keep his commitments.
“It is well-known that the Speaker and the president have spoken about him remaining in the position until 2008,” Bonjean said. “At the same time, the Speaker serves at the pleasure of the House Republican Conference.”
Whatever the case, his supporters are confident his tenure as Speaker has already sealed his fate in history.
“Historically speaking, he’s already earned his place in the book,” said Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), a Hastert prot