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Hastert a Conservative at Heart

December 22, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ J. Dennis Hastert, heir apparent to the speaker’s chair, is popular among colleagues from all wings of the Republican Party. But notwithstanding a moderate manner, the Illinois Republican’s conservative credentials are as solid as they come.

``He’s basically as conservative as any leader in the Republican Party has got to be to be elected to leadership,″ says his mentor, former House Minority Leader Bob Michel of Illinois. ``But he’s not an ideologue.″

Hastert gets perfect ratings from a phalanx of business and conservative groups -- and zeroes across the board from labor unions and liberal interests.

``He is a hide-bound, rock-ribbed Illinois conservative,″ said Amy Issacs, national director for the liberal Americans for Democratic Action.

Hastert, now the House leadership’s No. 2 vote-counter, appears certain to be formally anointed as Republicans’ candidate for speaker on Jan. 5. He is expected to be elected to the top job by the full House when the 106th Congress convenes a day later.

During six terms in Congress representing a GOP-leaning slice of farmland and far-flung western Chicago suburbs, Hastert has made his mark brokering back-room compromises that balance many competing interests.

A former high school teacher, Hastert has carved out a legislative niche as his party’s standard-bearer on health care issues. Outgoing Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., this year assigned him the task of crafting a managed-care reform bill to undercut the Democrat patients’ bill of rights, which would have allowed consumers to sue HMOs.

Hastert also mediated a 1996 stalemate between Democrats and Republicans that resulted in an experiment with tax-favored medical savings accounts, and was instrumental in enacting legislation that helps workers stay insured when they move between jobs.

Still, as displayed by Hastert’s leading role in battles such as the GOP’s highly partisan fight against using sampling techniques to take the next census, Hastert is deeply conservative at heart.

He is an evangelical Christian who opposes abortion and advocates lower taxes, a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution and the death penalty.

Such groups as the National Right to Life Committee, the Christian Coalition, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association all gave his voting record perfect scores of 100. The American Conservative Union gave him an 88.

Meanwhile, Issac’s group, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union and labor organizations such as the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters, each gave Hastert zero points. The League of Conservation Voters rated him a 13.

On abortion, Hastert voted in 1998 to override President Clinton’s veto of a ban on a certain late-term abortion procedures, to require parental notification before minors can get contraceptives from federally financed clinics, to criminalize taking a minor to another state for an abortion and against FDA approval of abortion-inducing drugs. He also voted against making federal employees’ health care plans cover contraceptives.

Hastert also went on record against federal dollars for the National Endowment for the Arts, in favor of government-funded private-school vouchers and opposing a campaign finance overhaul.

And even as Hastert made a name for himself as House Republicans’ leader on anti-narcotics efforts, he used that platform to crusade against federal money for needle-exchange programs, which backers argue can help stem the spread of AIDS among drug users.

He also showed his conservative stripes by voting with the business community to support the North American Free Trade Agreement and ``fast-track″ trade-negotiating authority for the president.

Ralph Reed, a GOP consultant and one-time executive director of the Christian Coalition, differentiated Hastert from more hard-edged conservatives by describing him as a reliable vote for the religious right but not defined by it nor its chief champion.

``He’s not somebody who religious conservatives view as hostile. He’s friendly,″ Reed said. ``But he’s not someone who’s going to be a lightning rod ... as proprietary property of the movement.″

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