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DeLaying Hastert?

The latest parlor game in Washington, a city that can't get enough of them, is "Who's running the House?"

Ever since Rep. Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois was elected Speaker, coming in as a consensus-builder liked on both sides of the aisle, it's been fashionable to assert that majority whip Tom DeLay (R) of Texas is the puppet master pulling the strings of power.

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Several factors give rise to such notions. Speaker Hastert was Mr. DeLay's deputy whip in the 104th and 105th Congresses. In the leadership vacuum following last fall's elections, DeLay was prominent in supporting the articles of impeachment against President Clinton. The two men have contrasting personalities: While Hastert is the quiet, steady-as-she-goes type, DeLay is a hard-charging, partisan, tough conservative. With Newt Gingrich gone, he becomes the perfect foil for Democrats.

The not-so-subtle spin that DeLay is running the show emanates primarily from the White House and Hill Democrats - hardly disinterested observers. Hastert is a difficult target for their campaign to paint the GOP as hostage of the extreme right. DeLay is an easier mark.

The rumors gained new currency during the confusion surrounding the ambiguous House votes on Kosovo policy two weeks ago. Hastert voted for a resolution supporting air strikes, but it went down on a tie vote, with 26 Democrats siding against the White House. DeLay campaigned against the resolution, leading to charges he was twisting arms in defiance of the Speaker. Hastert admits he should have cast his own vote sooner to give direction to fence-sitters.

The Speaker's major challenge isn't DeLay; it's that with an tiny majority of five votes, he has little room to maneuver. He must try to bring together the constituent parts of a GOP coalition as divided as were the Democrats when they were in the majority. (As those Democrats are now finding, there is something very unifying about being in the minority.)

Hastert may be the kind of person it is easy to underestimate. To do so, however, would be at least premature, and at most a serious mistake.

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