Bush's (New) Go-To Guy

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Hey, speak, you rented your tux yet?" George W. Bush asked House Speaker Dennis Hastert as he walked into the Oval Office a few hours before the state dinner with Mexico's President last week. Bush couldn't resist firing another one at his guest: "Make sure you don't get one of those powder blue ones."

Hastert chuckled--but only briefly. Hastert and his House Republicans want the President to do more to help the economy, like pass a capital-gains tax cut. "We want to make sure the economy is getting better so people can see it by next summer at the latest," Hastert told the President, evidently concerned about next autumn's midterm elections, when the G.O.P. could lose control of the chamber. The Speaker added that the House G.O.P. would offer up its own emergency round of tax cuts--with or without White House backing. "Fine," Bush said, feigning enthusiasm. Privately, the President is worried that a Hastert plan, if passed, could dunk the budget in red ink by 2004, when he is up for re-election, if not sooner. But Bush decided not to object to Hastert's plan in public.

After almost three years as House Speaker, Denny Hastert has become someone even Presidents would prefer not to cross. He runs the only chamber of Congress that Bush can count on, and Hastert knows it. "A lot of the heavy lifting is going to have to come out of the House," Hastert told TIME. In the beginning, Bush took the G.O.P.-controlled House for granted and focused his attention on the troublesome, evenly split Senate, where his party clung to power by dint of Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote. But once Democrats took control of the upper chamber, Bush needed Hastert to pass bills as close to the President's liking as possible so he could have maximum bargaining room when the Senate and House meet in conference. For Hastert, "this could be a defining moment," says G.O.P. pollster David Winston.

Hastert has come a long way since January 1999, when his colleagues turned to the former high school economics teacher and wrestling coach after Newt Gingrich was dumped and his designated successor Bob Livingston suddenly quit. Hastert was widely dismissed as a pawn of more conservative and less presentable back-room operators like majority leader Dick Armey and majority whip Tom DeLay during the last two years of the Clinton Administration. Democrats called him the accidental Speaker, who they predicted would return to the back benches when they retook the House in the 2000 elections. "It was overwhelming," Hastert says of the first few months in his new job. "We had to begin by finding the keys to the doors in the Speaker's office."

But after campaigning in 178 congressional districts in 2000, he kept the House under G.O.P. control and earned the fealty of his troops, who often shout, "Coach! Coach!" when he walks into their caucus meetings. Hastert's keen sense of the commonplace favors and bills his members need to survive the next election is in contrast to with Gingrich's millenarian frothings. "Newt had a vision for the year 2020," says South Carolina Representative Lindsey Graham. "Denny is thinking about next Tuesday." A conservative, Hastert has also done what DeLay and Armey could not: convinced pivotal G.O.P. moderates that he cares about them too. And he should. In a closely divided House, their votes carry more weight. "I don't know of anyone else who could be Speaker now," says moderate G.O.P. Representative Christopher Shays, who's clashed with Hastert on campaign-finance reform but describes the Speaker as possessing "the proper temperament for the country."

In a chamber known for its self-impressed, vacuum-packed politicians, the avuncular Hastert has some natural advantages. Raised in northern Illinois, where he grew up on a farm, he's lived virtually all of his 59 years in his sprawling commuter district west of Chicago, which also includes Ronald Reagan's hometown. Heavyset and rumpled, Hastert looks a little like comedian Drew Carey. In public his staff addresses him as Mr. Speaker, but in private he prefers that they simply call him Denny. He shuns the Beltway talk-show-and-cocktail circuit and, at the end of the week, usually catches the first plane he can back to his modest Yorkville, Ill., home across from a cornfield on Route 34. When he became Speaker, his security detail told him he'd have to lock his doors at night.

He may have the most to fear from the guys across the aisle in Congress. He and Democratic leader Dick Gephardt are barely on speaking terms, and have locked horns over everything from scheduling votes on bills to the appointment of the House chaplain. Democrats complain that behind Hastert's aw-shucks mien is a take-no-prisoners pol. When they belittle him as DeLay's puppet, Hastert just smiles. "Nobody's running the show but me." While it's true that DeLay was instrumental in seeing Hastert, then his deputy whip, get the top job, the Speaker is his own man on matters large and small. It was Hastert, for example, who organized the House majorities that passed the crucial education and patients' rights bills over DeLay's objections. When Armey and DeLay publicly called for Bush to oppose funding for embryonic stem-cell research, Hastert stayed out of it. (Hastert begged off taking a stand before Bush did.)

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