Monday, October 16, 2006

Hastert's Team Mentality to Be Tested as Foley Scandal Unfolds

On a table near the desk of the speaker of the House, nine bears sit in a wooden rowboat, eight with oars and one in charge. But the boat can't move unless the oars all row in the same direction. That's why House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) bought it.

Ever since an odd combination of scandal and turmoil catapulted Hastert into the speaker's job in 1999, the beefy former wrestling coach -- who's a bit bearlike himself -- has pushed House Republicans to work as a team. And he's had remarkable success. Largely unknown outside Washington, routinely underestimated as a powerless figurehead inside Washington, the accidental speaker has helped unify his fractious caucus, promote President Bush's agenda and expand the House's GOP majority.

"That rowboat is how he sees his job," said lobbyist David Thompson, a former Hastert aide. "He wakes up every morning thinking about how he can help the Republican team."

But now the Republican rowboat is leaking, and the longest-serving GOP speaker in history is at the center of the storm.

As investigators probe whether Hastert ignored warnings about former representative Mark Foley (R-Fla.), Democrats across the country are portraying him as a symbol of a see-no-evil Republican House. They say Hastert's intense partisanship repeatedly blinded him to GOP misconduct -- not only Foley's inappropriate electronic messages with teenage pages but the corruption of lawmakers such as Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), as well as Bush's missteps in Iraq and New Orleans. Even Hastert's defenders acknowledge that his top priority as speaker has been protecting the GOP majority, not investigating the president or his own caucus.


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