Monday, February 28, 2005

GOP Odd Couple Reflect Chambers They Lead

GOP Odd Couple Reflect Chambers They Lead

Their Cohesion Could Greatly Affect Bush Agenda

By Charles Babington and Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writers

The Republican leaders of the House and Senate were 4,000 miles apart on a recent Friday afternoon. One hunkered down at a GOP lawmakers' retreat in West Virginia while the other discussed world poverty with movie stars in a Swiss resort town. People who know them were not surprised.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) share many goals and, by most accounts, genuinely like each other. But in style, ambition and operating methods, they could hardly be more different.

Their ability to work together this year and next -- and, more important, to align their two chambers -- will have major ramifications for President Bush's agenda and the course of such knotty issues as the Iraq war and the federal deficit.

With Republicans holding the House, Senate and White House, cooperation would seem easier than under divided government, but that has not always been the case. The House consistently leans more conservative than the Senate, and lately Hastert has differed with Bush on such matters as highway funding and Social Security.

Aside from making them a political odd couple, Hastert's and Frist's actions, choices and priorities reflect the realities of the chambers they lead.

Republicans dominate the House, where Hastert has moved quietly but aggressively to consolidate his power, rarely bothering to explain his rationale or involve Democrats in making decisions. In the Senate, Democrats still hold enough seats to block Republicans on most issues, sometimes by using the filibuster. Their strength forces Frist to cajole, explain and persuade almost constantly, either before television cameras or secluded in his office with a handful of fellow senators.

Frist's job is "like herding cats," said James A. Thurber, director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. Mainly because of half a dozen moderate GOP senators, he said, "it's very hard to keep the caucus together in the Senate."

As for Hastert and his lieutenants, Thurber said, "it's brilliant in the House how they've centralized power."

A comparison of the two men, and the current state of the institutions they lead, suggests both the power and the limits of one-party rule.
A Difference in Style

The events of Jan. 27 and 28 neatly captured their divergent styles: Hastert the classic insider, a legislator's legislator, little known to the outside world; Frist the cosmopolitan traveler and frequent television guest, known as much for his medical skills as his legislative talents. Most House and Senate Republicans had traveled to West Virginia's Greenbrier resort for a long weekend of partisan strategizing. Hastert arrived promptly on the first day, a Thursday, and was there Friday when Bush spoke.

Frist was in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum. A surgeon who has operated on indigent patients and campaigned for better health around the world, he had agreed last summer to moderate a panel on global poverty. In doing so, he drew a few chuckles when he appeared not to recognize actress Sharon Stone, asking her to "please identify yourself" when she interrupted the talk to offer money to fight malaria in Africa.

Frist left Davos early to fly home in time to reach the Greenbrier on Friday night, soon after Bush had left, and he stayed through the weekend. A few published reports said Frist's Davos diversion had irked Hastert and other Republicans, but the speaker plays down the incident.

"Somebody assumed that I would probably be unhappy because he was in Davos and I was with the conference," said Hastert, who, like Frist, spoke for this article. "But that's up to him. He has to make the decisions. I have enough trouble filling my shoes every day and getting things done here."

By "here" he means the 435-member House, his workplace for two decades. Whereas Frist, 53, is contemplating a 2008 presidential bid, Hastert, 63, has made it clear he aspires to nothing beyond the speakership, which he has held for six years. He rarely holds news conferences or goes on network talk shows. A burly man who ambles when he walks and often mumbles when he talks, Hastert still resembles an Illinois high school wrestling coach -- which he was, for many years.

Frist is a tall, trim, sharply dressed physician with personal wealth and degrees from Princeton and Harvard. His possible White House aspirations sometimes stir whispered questions about his motives when he goes on TV or makes well-publicized trips. By the standards of Washington politics, however, such questions seem mild, colleagues say, largely because the election is years away, and even Frist's potential rivals generally respect and trust him. Frist says he will retire at the end of 2006, keeping the two-term-limit pledge he made when elected in 1994.

Frist said he is keenly aware that his Senate career will draw to a close midway through Bush's second term. "It keeps me very focused," he said. "It is pretty much the same thing in heart surgery. It makes you go hard fast, maximize use of time and respect other people."

He added, "I can't put things off two or three or four years -- these big issues like Social Security or Medicare last year."

For all their differences -- Frist sometimes e-mails his aides at 3 a.m., while Hastert sleeps from 10 or 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. -- the two have key similarities. Their politics are mainstream conservatism, and they landed in their powerful posts largely by accident. Hastert, after eight years of unspectacular ascension in the House, vaulted to the speakership in late 1998 when a series of political and ethical missteps toppled then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his heir apparent, Bob Livingston (R-La.).

Frist, who never voted until he was 36, jumped from medicine to politics in 1994 and promptly unseated veteran Sen. James Sasser (D). Eight years later, when Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was forced out as Senate majority leader because he praised a 1948 segregationist presidential campaign, Bush helped elevate his friend Frist to the post.

Congressional sources say Hastert had no special affection for Lott and was ready to embrace the new Senate leader. But they had a rocky start in April 2003, when Frist angered Hastert and other Republicans by not informing them that he had agreed to limit a proposed tax cut during tough negotiations with party moderates.

Frist quickly apologized, and Hastert says he used the occasion to reach an understanding with him. "I said to him, 'Look it' -- and I think he agreed -- 'if we're going to get along together, if we're going to get things done, we have to be honest with each other and straightforward with each other and tell each other some things that probably aren't pleasant to tell. But we have to be candid.' And we've had that relationship. And I think it's worked."

Other Capitol insiders agree that Frist has grown more adept in his leadership post, and he recently celebrated a victory that reversed one of last year's keenest disappointments. After several years of nudging by the House, the Senate passed a measure to limit class-action lawsuits. "I'm hopeful," said a beaming Frist, "that the swift passage of this overwhelmingly bipartisan bill reflects a continuing commitment by members of both chambers to put good policy ahead of partisan politics."

But lawmakers from both parties say it is far from certain that the House and Senate can resolve long-standing differences on many other high-profile issues, including energy policies, a ban on Arctic oil drilling, highway funding and medical malpractice revisions -- not to mention the battle now raging over Social Security.
Bridging Differences

Congressional rules and precedents have long granted minority parties greater protections in the Senate than in the House. When Republicans and Democrats each control one chamber -- or when they split control of the White House and Congress -- those differences are largely muted by the broader partisan warfare throughout the government. But when one party controls the executive and legislative branches, as Republicans have since the 2002 elections, the House-Senate differences come more sharply into play, often frustrating those who cannot understand why the majority party does not push its entire agenda through Congress.

The Hastert-led House, able to ignore Democrats, often passes legislation that the more centrist Senate rejects, including measures dealing with gun control, abortion limits and civil liability curbs. Last year, the House and Senate could not even agree on a budget, in an embarrassment to the Republican Party.

In the meantime, Hastert, ever focused inward, has coupled his institutional powers with tough policies in his GOP caucus, cowing potential challengers in ways that belie his teddy-bear image. He recently removed a handful of Republican committee members, including two chairmen, deemed insufficiently loyal. He replaced them with allies less likely to question his leadership team, which includes Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).

Hastert and DeLay "made a conscious decision this year to consolidate power," said six-term Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.).

But he said Hastert leavens his tough-guy approach with patient willingness to listen to colleagues. He cited last year's intelligence restructuring bill, which many Republicans rejected until Hastert promised to allow changes to immigration laws. "He got a lot of bad publicity," LaHood said, "but he did it in a way that pleased our members."

Nowadays, Frist and Hastert meet frequently, seeking ways to bring the unwieldy Senate and lock-step House into accord -- a task tougher than it looks, insiders say. Senate GOP Whip Mitch McConnell (Ky.) called Frist's leadership post "the toughest job in town" and said of the House: "Things that they can do on a partisan basis, we couldn't even get started on over here on a partisan basis."

Hastert said he understands Frist's challenge and is determined to work with the other chamber, even if it sometimes seems alien.

"Even though the Senate is only 30 yards away across that Rotunda," Hastert said, "sometimes it's like they're 30 miles away."

Originally published Saturday, February 26, 2005; Page A01