Hastert Profile Rises, But at a Bad Time

This week, Dennis Hastert of Illinois becomes the longest-serving Republican speaker of the House in U.S. history. He surpasses such legendary figures as Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine and Nicholas Longworth of Ohio, and previous record holder "Uncle Joe" Cannon, also of Illinois, who was speaker a century ago.

In an awkward coincidence, Hastert is claiming the longevity crown just as most Americans may be paying attention to him for the first time. Through most of his time as speaker, Hastert has held the top job but has not been the chamber's dominant personality. That distinction has belonged to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), who left his leadership post last fall and will resign his seat June 9 to go back home and fight charges that he violated campaign finance laws.

Now, Hastert is finally emerging as his own man and asserting the authority that goes with his office. But the attention he is getting is not entirely welcome.

Last week, the speaker popped up as the lead story on ABC News, which reported that he was "in the mix" of House members the Justice Department is looking at in its probe of lobbyist Jack Abramoff (now awaiting sentencing on federal corruption charges). The speaker immediately denied he was being investigated, and so did the Justice Department. But ABC stood by its story, making everyone wonder just what "in the mix" might mean.

The sudden national exposure could scarcely come at a worst time for Hastert, who had just been badgering President Bush in protest of a search the FBI conducted on a congressional office the previous weekend. The overnight FBI night raid, apparently unprecedented in 217 years of congressional history, had many House and Senate members howling. So as Speaker, Hastert had an institutional duty to take his separation-of-powers grievance straight to the Oval Office.

It now turns out that Hastert's pleas did not go unheard. Vice President Dick Cheney, usually a reliable vote for executive privilege and prerogative, objected to the way his old House colleagues were being dissed. The congressman whose office was raided, William Jefferson (D-LA), may well have been a wholly legitimate target. But did the FBI have to storm his office without so much as a heads-up to the Speaker? The Washington Post and the New York Times reported the president had heard the Hill complaints and begun leaning toward some sort of accommodation for the speaker and his wounded troops.

But when top Justice Department officials caught wind of the seized records being returned, they rebelled. The deputy attorney general in charge reportedly talked of resigning. He was reinforced by his boss, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, and by FBI Director Robert Mueller. Although none actually issued an ultimatum, they caused the prevailing winds at the White House to shift yet again.

The president ordered a 45-day cooling off period, with the seized materials sealed for the interim. That gives all a chance to step back from their lines in the sand. But a cooling-off does not settle what happens to the records themselves, and it does not address the larger issues at stake.

No one believes that Hastert weighed in on the Jefferson case out of concern for Jefferson. That much he has made clear. There is, rather, a principle involved, one rooted in the Constitution. Each branch enjoys a presumption of autonomy and shared power.

But beyond this principle lie other, equally urgent considerations. Hastert may be no more inclined to protect Jefferson than he was to defend former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA), who pleaded guilty earlier this year to accepting millions in bribes. But there are other investigations afoot that may worry Hastert because they concern a number of other senior Republicans.

For months there has been talk that the Justice Department task force that nailed Abramoff is casting a wide net in the direction of his former friends and associates — including major power figures in the Republican House.

The task force has focused on staff and lobbyists to date, but it is expected to pursue more indictments. Some on the Hill fear the task force is redefining criminal bribery, broadening it to include campaign contributions given without the sort of quid pro quo that would constitute obvious corruption. This might allow the net of suspicion to be cast quite widely indeed.

Hastert has been under extraordinary pressure from his rank and file, who are alarmed about the prospects of defeat in November's midterm elections. Hastert has ceased to be the pushover he often seemed during President Bush's first term. In the past year or so, he has been at odds with the White House over elements of the president's Social Security overhaul, over the guest worker and citizenship programs the president wants in the immigration bill and over levels of spending the president is willing to condone. Earlier this month, Hastert felt stung when his longtime friend Porter Goss was ousted as CIA director.

It was in this context that the speaker saw himself and Congress rudely challenged by the search of Jefferson's office in defiance of precedent and custom.

So there could be multiple reasons for Hastert, the affable former high school teacher and wrestling coach, to be alarmed at the proceedings at Justice. The sudden search of the Jefferson office is simply the latest incident to provoke the rumpled and unpretentious man whom colleagues still call "Coach."



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