The Surprising Success Of The Accidental Speaker

When Congress adjourned in 1999 amid partisan chaos, capital cognoscenti were down on the leadership of new Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and equally downbeat about Republicans' prospects for retaining a majority in the House in 2000. Under Hastert--an Illinois backbencher unprepared for his sudden rise to power--the House often dissolved into chaos as the desire to torment Bill Clinton overwhelmed the impulse for thoughtful legislating.

Hastert may not be a latter-day Metternich, but never let it be said that he doesn't learn from experience. This year, the Speaker is exerting more discipline over his colleagues. He is talking strategy with President Clinton instead of hurling brickbats. And at Hastert's direction, the House has shifted from all-out ideological warfare to a more centrist strategy that focuses on passing compromise legislation.

How come? Hastert is reading the polls. Voters want Republicans to fight less and cooperate more. Trouble is, the issues voters care about most--education, health care, and pension security--are dominated by Democrats. If House Republicans are to hang on to the chamber they now control by just six seats, they need to make a good-faith effort to enact problem-solving measures before they head home this fall.

That's why Hastert is determined to turn Republicans into players on key bills. Take Clinton's drive for a hike in the minimum wage. Instead of shouting it down, the House passed a measure that gradually boosts the wage--albeit while showering small business with billions in tax breaks.

On tax policy, the House is a far different place than it was a year ago, when Republicans approved a $792 billion grab-bag of tax cuts that became instant veto bait. This year, to avoid White House criticism, Republicans have broken their tax plan into bite-size chunks worth more than $400 billion. Offered a chance to cast a vote for GOP standard-bearer George W. Bush's $1.7 trillion mega-cut, House GOPers demurred, opting instead for a series of small cuts such as marriage-penalty and estate-tax relief.

Hastert is also pushing compromises to give drug benefits to seniors and grant patients new power to sue managed-care health providers. He's pressing arch-conservatives for more concessions on gun control. And he is working hand-in-glove with Clinton on the lobbying blitz to grant China permanent trade status. Instead of Newt Gingrich-style head-banging, Hastert says: "We have to do some positive things."

Hastert may be the Accidental Speaker, and his oratorical skills don't exactly send chills down anyone's spine. But like Gingrich, he is filling party coffers. By Mar. 31, Hastert had raised $24 million on the rubber-chicken circuit. He hopes to bring in $10 million more by yearend.

CENTER SHIFT. Despite his strides, Hastert faces tough challenges, such as appeasing hard-liners who bristle at his more moderate tilt. Case in point: education. Hastert believes the GOP must meet the Administration part way on the push to fix aging schools. But on Mar. 30, he was forced to pull a bipartisan school-construction bill from the floor when he failed to corral enough conservative votes. "Hastert's not the problem," says Representative James P. Moran (D-Va.). "There is a hard core within the GOP that gives him fits on every piece of legislation." Hastert's move to the center has the Dems' attention, too. "He's playing on our turf," grouses one Democrat Hill aide.

A year ago, Hastert's House was one reason the GOP trailed Democrats by 10 points in some polls. But a mid-March survey by pollsters Edward Goeas and Celinda Lake shows that the race for Congress--like the battle for the White House--is a dead heat. Part of that shift is caused by the fading of anti-GOP impeachment backlash. But Washington insiders say that the underestimated Hastert is also a reason Republicans are back in the ballgame.