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Hastert Seeks to Keep House Control

October 21, 2002

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) _ The first time Dennis Hastert campaigned for the local Republican congressional candidate in these parts, he climbed into his pickup truck and pointed it downstate.

He’s back now, the truck replaced by a jet, the preferred method of travel for a speaker of the House who’s already been to several dozen congressional districts and will go to 22 more before Election Day in a drive to preserve the GOP majority.

``I need John Shimkus,″ Hastert, R-Ill., says of a third-term lawmaker in a tough race with Democratic Rep. David Phelps. ``When you operate on a five-vote margin, every race, every candidate makes a difference,″ adds the speaker, addressing a crowd in the restored Old State Capitol where Abraham Lincoln once served as a legislator.

At 60, Hastert presides over an accidental speakership. A former high school teacher, coach and state legislator, he was a junior member of the House GOP leadership when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich unexpectedly stepped aside following the loss of seats in the 1998 elections.

The man who helped drive Gingrich from power then abdicated, as well, and Republicans quickly coalesced around Hastert.

``I said, `Why me, O Lord,‴ he joked to his Illinois audience.

His first two years as speaker were spent battling President Clinton and a Democratic House minority determined to win back power. He struggled, as well, to overcome allegations that the real power in the House resided with the GOP party’s whip, Tom DeLay of Texas.

Hastert’s role changed abruptly when President Bush took office. He has spent much of the past two years putting together the votes to implement the administration’s program of tax cuts, education and, in the wake of Sept. 11, homeland security measures.

The old football and wrestling coach knows defense, too. Republicans passed prescription drug legislation for Medicare in an effort to blunt Democratic attacks. They also retreated by voting to crack down on corporate fraud and accept measures the GOP majority had once scorned.

Hastert has worked closely with Bush. But he’s also stood up for his slender majority when the president’s agenda might threaten it.

It was Hastert who told Bush months ago that legislation to overhaul Social Security would not come up for a debate before the elections, according to several GOP sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. It was an attempt to blunt Democratic criticism that Republicans favor privatization of the program _ an allegation strongly disputed by GOP leaders.

Even now, Hastert is noncommittal on the issue.

``We’re going to work with the president. We want to make sure ... that they do have security,″ he said of the program’s recipients. ``And we don’t necessarily want to raise taxes and we don’t want to cut benefits because people have been promised that.″

At the same time, he said, individuals receive a rate of return on their Social Security that is less than inflation. ``We can do a better job than that.″

Hastert talks of a favorable Republican ``calculus″ in House races, expressing confidence about the party’s ability to hold control and perhaps even gain seats in what would be a historic triumph.

With the exception of 1934, the party in power in the White House has lost House seats in every president’s first midterm election since Lincoln’s day.

Discussing his plans for the new Congress, Hastert says he wants to make last year’s tax cuts permanent, ``especially the inheritance tax and the marriage penalty″ elimination.

Also on the agenda is an effort to help the 40 million Americans who lack health insurance. One approach he mentioned is ``some kind of high-deductible″ or other type of insurance.

Prescription drugs for Medicare is ``something we want to come back to,″ Hastert says. The House passed-bill, favored by drug companies and opposed by most Democrats, is stalled in the Senate.

Domestic issues aside, he says, ``we may be involved in action in Iraq, so that has a certain focus all its own.″

To advance the president’s agenda, or his own, Hastert will need a renewed Republican majority. And that’s why he’s come to the state Capitol to address a fund-raiser for Shimkus, a former Army Ranger with an ability to thrive in difficult political terrain.

Shimkus won his seat on his second try, prevailing by 1,238 votes in 1996. That was the year Hastert volunteered his help, driving south to plant yard signs and shake hands at a sausage-and-eggs gathering at the VFW Hall.

Given that history, defeat would be a double disappointment for Hastert, who took personal charge of GOP efforts at redistricting his state’s House seats. Illinois lost one seat due to population shifts. The new map, a deal between Republicans and Chicago-area Democrats, generally protects incumbents of both parties.

The exception was Phelps, a conservative Democrat who decided to challenge Shimkus after his own seat was eliminated. The result is a high-profile race, one of a few dozen likely to settle the battle for House control.

Bush is expected to campaign for Shimkus next week _ an attempt to sway the downstate conservatives who handed him 57 percent of the district’s vote in 2000.

Hours before Hastert spoke for Shimkus, the man who would become speaker if Democrats win the election, Rep. Richard Gephardt, sat side by side with Phelps at a forum designed to focus attention on the economy. The event was in Gephardt’s district across the Missouri River. But nearly half the television viewers in the Shimkus-Phelps race watch St. Louis television stations.

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