WASHINGTON -- The survival of J. Dennis Hastert as speaker of the House of Representatives will produce an uncomfortable scene Thursday at the Chicago Hilton and Towers. President George W. Bush is the principal attraction at a reception to fund congressional candidates in two suburban Chicago districts -- once thought safely Republican but where Democrats now lead. In the wake of the Mark Foley scandal, Hastert's presence at the reception will be an embarrassing distraction.
"We look on this as a Bush event, not a Hastert event," an aide to one of the Republican candidates told this column. But the invitation to the $1,000-a-ticket Chicago fund-raiser lists Hastert, in large type, as its principal host. The speaker seems certain, unwittingly, to take attention away from the congressional candidates. As the most prominent Republican office holder in Illinois, Hastert could not be removed from this event, as he has been from five congressional campaigns as of this writing.
The spectacle of Denny Hastert showing up at political events across the nation where he is not wanted is a byproduct of his survival. Early last week after the Foley scandal broke, the buzz on Capitol Hill was that he would be gone within hours. By week's end, however, Republicans were acting more like Republicans. They had decided that Hastert must stay, because it was both fair and politically prudent. House GOP leaders, who had started the week shooting at each other, now were on the same page.
"It's really moot," one of Hastert's most severe Republican critics (who would not be identified) told me. "We are sure to lose the House, and Denny never would want to be minority leader." With Hastert's last performance as speaker coming in a predictably do-nothing lame-duck session after the Nov. 7 election, the month of October will be challenging for him and his party as he decides what to do with plans to campaign for challenged House candidates.
To begin this schedule, on Tuesday, Hastert was supposed to campaign for two endangered Republicans: freshman Rep. Mike Sodrel in Indiana and Rep. Ron Lewis in Kentucky. Hastert cancelled the Sodrel visit, and Lewis disinvited the speaker. The speaker also decided against a scheduled visit for Joy Padgett, replacing the disgraced Rep. Bob Ney in Ohio. Rep. Jim Gerlach in Pennsylvania and Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, attempting a write-in campaign to replace the resigned Rep. Tom DeLay in Texas, asked Hastert not to come. Democrats may win in all five of these districts.