By Jonathan E. Kaplan - 01/11/06 12:00 AM EST
After months of staying on the sidelines, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is taking a more forceful and hands-on approach to end the political damage after a wave of bribery and public corruption scandals that are threatening the Republican majority in Congress.
Throughout 2005, Hastert did not waver much from his understated leadership style amid ethics allegations about his lieutenant, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), and the escalating Jack Abramoff lobbying controversy.
Some Republicans are privately criticizing Hastert for not calling for lobbying reform last year, saying that waiting until the Abramoff case exploded may have long-lasting political ramifications.
Before Hastert recently spoke out on the need for lobbying reform, his predecessor Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) attracted headlines on his political reform plan.
Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.) this week suggested to The Washington Post that GOP lawmakers should consider whether a new Speaker is needed.
Hastert is now shifting into high gear. He will meet with reporters today to discuss legislation to change the ethics and lobbying rules, and he met yesterday with President Bush to discuss the congressional agenda and with Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) to talk about lobbying reform.
On Monday night, he participated in a conference call with 160 GOP lawmakers. Fearing more lawmakers would call for across-the-board leadership elections, several lawmakers rallied to Hastert’s side, according to GOP sources on the call. Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) told his colleagues in the phone call that holding an election for Speaker in the middle of the Congress would set a bad precedent.
Still, some legislators are not pleased that Hastert waited until Sunday — months after details about Abramoff’s crimes emerged from Senate hearings and the media — to direct Dreier to draft legislation.
“We probably should have done it sooner, but it’s easy to second guess,” a prominent GOP lawmaker said. “There’s no reason to believe there’s a desire to get around to it, but I’m very worried about legislating in a political firestorm.”
A rank-and-file GOP lawmaker said that he would have preferred someone from outside the current leadership circle to write a political reform bill and added that Hastert “is tired and worn out” from dealing with the scandals.
There is a growing uneasiness among some House Republicans that they will be able to retain the House this November. “We don’t know how many people will go down” because of the scandals, the lawmaker added.
A top GOP aide said, “I think that was a mistake to allow the Democrats to gain an opening that they shouldn’t have had. The Speaker is doing a great job now on trying to regain footing on the issue. … We could have been out in front and on offense instead of simply looking like we are reacting now that Abramoff has pleaded guilty.”
A prominent GOP lobbyist said, “They’re more damned if they don’t act,” acknowledging that the delay has caused some damage to the GOP.
Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean said, “Over the past several months, we’ve asked Chairman Dreier to work with members and developing legislation on lobbying reform, and now we have the time to consider it.” “We’ve had a jam-packed agenda before and after Hurricane Katrina, and the time is better now, more than ever, to consider it.”
Some former aides suggested that a Catch-22 attitude was pervasive among the Republican leadership staff: introducing bold fixes early last year would have been perceived as an admission of wrongdoing, and anything Republicans did would have been severely criticized by Democrats.
“The fact is, we tried this earlier in the year when Hastert proposed travel reform that would have required pre-clearance for private travel from the ethics committee,” a senior House GOP aide said. “But [Democratic leaders] trashed it. Anything Republicans proposed on their own, they were criticized for.”
In addition, House GOP aides told The Hill last year that they wanted to wait to introduce political reform legislation in 2006 because it’s an election year.
Even as the number of reported ethical violations grew, Hastert proposed relatively narrow reforms while Democrats proposed several bills last year and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced his proposal late last year.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), a candidate for majority whip, made lobbying reform the centerpiece of his candidacy for majority whip. He proposed legislation yesterday to create a regulatory commission to monitor and enforce ethics rules. A fee on registered lobbyists would fund the commission.
“The public wants to know if they recognize there’s a problem,” Rogers said, adding that he had been working on this proposal for months and shared his ideas with Dreier before the Christmas break.
GOP lawmakers now worry about being forced to pass draconian legislation. A dozen Republican lawmakers said in interviews that they would favor barring former lawmakers from the House floor, increasing the time period in which staffers can lobby and banning privately funded trips.
But the prominent GOP lobbyist said, “Hastert is the right guy for the moment because he is capable of legislating [under] the pressure of the outside glare. There’s going to be heavy pressure to overreact and focus the light where it does not need to be focused.”
“It’s important for Republicans to be on the side of reform. This is 1994,” said Frank Luntz, a pollster and adviser to House Republicans. “The same attitudes, frustrations and anxieties exist today that existed then. The only difference is that Republicans are in charge.”
But freshman Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) dismissed the impact of Abramoff’s guilty plea on his class members as they prepare for their reelection campaigns.
“None of us has been here long enough to be tainted,” Conaway said.
Patrick O’Connor and Bob Cusack contributed to this article.