The Speaker's Survival

The survival of J. Dennis Hastert as speaker of the House of Representatives will produce an uncomfortable scene Thursday at the Chicago Hilton and Towers. President George W. Bush is the principal attraction at a reception to fund congressional candidates in two suburban Chicago districts — once thought safely Republican but where Democrats now lead. In the wake of the Mark Foley scandal, Hastert’s presence at the reception will be an embarrassing distraction.

 "We look on this as a Bush event, not a Hastert event," an aide to one of the Republican candidates told this column. But the invitation to the $1,000-a-ticket Chicago fund-raiser lists Hastert, in large type, as its principal host. The speaker seems certain, unwittingly, to take attention away from the congressional candidates. As the most prominent Republican office holder in Illinois, Hastert could not be removed from this event, as he has been from five congressional campaigns as of this writing.

The spectacle of Denny Hastert showing up at political events across the nation where he is not wanted is a byproduct of his survival. Early last week after the Foley scandal broke, the buzz on Capitol Hill was that he would be gone within hours. By week’s end, however, Republicans were acting more like Republicans. They had decided that Hastert must stay, because it was both fair and politically prudent. House GOP leaders, who had started the week shooting at each other, now were on the same page.

"It’s really moot," one of Hastert’s most severe Republican critics (who would not be identified) told me. "We are sure to lose the House, and Denny never would want to be minority leader." With Hastert’s last performance as speaker coming in a predictably do-nothing lame-duck session after the Nov. 7 election, the month of October will be challenging for him and his party as he decides what to do with plans to campaign for challenged House candidates.

To begin this schedule, on Tuesday, Hastert was supposed to campaign for two endangered Republicans: freshman Rep. Mike Sodrel in Indiana and Rep. Ron Lewis in Kentucky. Hastert cancelled the Sodrel visit, and Lewis disinvited the speaker. The speaker also decided against a scheduled visit for Joy Padgett, replacing the disgraced Rep. Bob Ney in Ohio. Rep. Jim Gerlach in Pennsylvania and Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, attempting a write-in campaign to replace the resigned Rep. Tom DeLay in Texas, asked Hastert not to come. Democrats may win in all five of these districts.

The embarrassment of a House speaker rejected by candidates who most need help would have been avoided if Hastert had been pushed out last week. He was not, mainly because the man who has been speaker longer than any previous Republican is popular with his colleagues, who wanted to be fair to him. Furthermore, in conversations over the past week, they determined the political fallout from his resignation would be worse than his retention.

Rank-and-file Republicans do not blame Hastert for the failure of the House party leadership and its staff to heed excessive attention paid to male pages by closeted homosexual Foley. "Foley should have been tossed out years ago," said a Republican congressman who is a close ally of Hastert. "It’s sickening."

The broader question asked by thoughtful Republican House members is whether the sloppy treatment of Foley’s conduct reflected the same leadership problems in failing to make tax cuts permanent or even to address the coming crisis in Social Security.

Nor has Hastert supported spending reform. While he is not one of the Appropriations Committee "Cardinals" who pile up wasteful earmarks to the dismay of conservative voters, he and his staff are earmarkers. Four months ago, it was revealed that Hastert earned nearly $2 million in a 2005 land deal that might have been made possible by a $207 million highway earmark by the speaker. Hastert’s colleagues looked away.

The decision to stick it out with Hastert postpones what House Republicans will do about leadership in the wake of probable defeat Nov. 7. Will they look for leaders unafraid of tax and spending reform and who will be more watchful of aberrant behavior by their colleagues?