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Past speaker's a shadow of his former self

Published January 18, 2007

100 hours in Congress

WASHINGTON - As Rep. Dennis Hastert shuffled out of the weekly meeting of the Republican Conference, a TV producer shouted to him.

"Mr. Speaker! Want to say something to us?"

But Hastert shook his head and ignored the microphones. A couple of months ago, when he was House speaker - and second in line to the presidency - he was expected to address the media and serve as a face for his party. But now, in the 27th hour of the Democrats' legislative blitz, he's just another back-bencher, one of 202 in the powerless Republican minority.

Hastert, 65, a hulking former wrestling coach from Illinois, walked hunched over, every step a chore. He looked glum.

When a reporter caught up with him and requested a brief interview, he agreed, but grudgingly. Asked about his goals for the year, he just recited his assignment - "I'm a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, ranking member on the energy subcommittee" - like a prisoner of war providing his rank and serial number.

He used to run this place. He and his lieutenants decided what bills made it to the House floor, who ran the important committees, when members had to work, and when they could go play golf.

Some say he was a puppet of former Majority Leader Tom DeLay; others say he kept his party together to pass President Bush's agenda.

Now his clout is just a memory, a puff of smoke from the Republican Revolution, dissipating over the Potomac. His party got walloped in November, and many believe he was partly to blame for mishandling the Mark Foley scandal.

When the Republicans brushed themselves off after November's beating and began to reorganize, he did not seek a leadership post - not that he would have won, anyway.

And so Hastert has kept a low profile. During votes, he lurks at the back of the House floor, looking like he would rather be someplace else. When Republicans hold news conferences to denounce their new Democratic masters, or to offer alternative plans, Hastert is nowhere in sight.

He has been a good sport about the change in power. He reflexively delivers the Republican talking points when asked about the new ruling party "It's been rather undemocratic for a Democratic Congress", but he doesn't seem too bothered.

"I give them the benefit of the doubt," he said.

Indeed, Nancy Pelosi, his Democratic successor, graciously provided him with a bright office. And Hastert still has a security detail from the Capitol Police - two officers and a big black Chevrolet Suburban to escort him.

He doesn't have to worry about inconveniences that other members face, such as walking across the street. After Wednesday's meeting at the Cannon House Office Building, the Suburban carted him 100 yards across Independence Avenue to the Capitol door.

There were rumors he might get a cushy ambassadorship to a friendly nation like Japan, but that's now considered unlikely. With the Democrats in charge, the confirmation hearings might turn into a replay of the Foley affair.

Asked if he will serve the remainder of his term, which expires next year, he sounded like a guy in rehab.

"I take it a day at a time."

Times staff writer Wes Allison contributed to this report. Bill Adair can be reached at or (202) 463-0575.

[Last modified January 18, 2007, 00:44:04]

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