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The New York Times
Fight to Pass Medicare Measure Raised House Speaker's Profile

WASHINGTON, Dec. 5 -- Since his sudden rise to House speaker in 1999, J. Dennis Hastert has rarely been mentioned in the same breath as Congressional powerbrokers of the past. Yet in the hours before dawn on Nov. 22, Mr. Hastert was working the House floor the way Lyndon B. Johnson once managed the Senate, using the force of personal persuasion to secure passage of a critical bill.

Desperate to win a few Republican converts and avoid a humiliating rejection of the Medicare drug plan, Mr. Hastert, an imposing former wrestling coach, was literally leaning on recalcitrant lawmakers to win their support. He used his authority to place the House in suspended animation for almost three hours until he could prevail on a handful of members to drop their opposition to the measure.

''Our job was to get our people on board,'' Mr. Hastert said with his typical understatement. ''It took some time.''

The three-hour House vote and passage of the Medicare bill altered the perception of Mr. Hastert in Washington, where he had been widely seen as an amiable, almost invisible sidekick to Tom DeLay, the House Republican leader.

Acting on his long-term interest in health care issues, Mr. Hastert forcefully asserted himself on Medicare, producing the prescription drug legislation over the concerted objections of Democrats and a flock of Republican conservatives. He persuaded the White House to back off aproposal he knew would not succeed and joined with the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, to overrule House-Senate negotiators and broker a compromise critical to winning the endorsement of AARP.

''This is the most he has ever done on the floor and elsewhere to push through something that he wanted,'' said James. A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.

Mr. Thurber and others said the Medicare struggle represented a new stage of evolution in Mr. Hastert's command of a Republican leadership that is exerting tight discipline to succeed despite its slim House majority.

But the Medicare victory, which will be sealed when President Bush signs the measure on Monday, came at considerable cost. Democrats are vilifying Mr. Hastert and his lieutenants not only for the substance of a proposal that the opponents argue will eventually mean the end of Medicare, but also for the way the vote was conducted and the arm-twisting to force it through.

''They are corrupting the practices of the House,'' said Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House.

Conservatives say they fear that Mr. Hastert, in his desire to secure a domestic accomplishment for Mr. Bush and Congressional Republicans to trumpet in next year's elections, gave away the federal store by enacting a huge new spending program.

''None of us conservatives are very happy with the leadership pushing this through,'' said Representative Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who worked to build opposition to the proposal. ''We as Republicans shouldn't be expanding entitlements, and that is exactly what we did.''

But the Medicare plan was a natural progression for Mr. Hastert, who has been developing Republican health alternatives since the first Bush administration. As a diabetic who injects himself daily with insulin, he has said he understands the benefits that reliable access to drugs can mean for older Americans.

''I am not quite 65, but I am getting close,'' said Mr. Hastert, who is 61. ''I know if you have the right regimen, you can be active.''

Though he has been the speaker since January 1999, the lawmaker from a Northern Illinois district that stretches from the Chicago suburbs to cornfields is little known to much of the public. He rose to the job in the tumult surrounding the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton, the resignation of Speaker Newt Gingrich and the subsequent decision of the man expected to replace Mr. Gingrich to step aside as well.

In that swirl of events, Mr. Hastert, who was then the chief deputy to the House whip, Mr. DeLay, was promoted for the top spot by Mr. DeLay, who realized he was too much of a lightning rod because of his driving role in the impeachment. That connection created a lingering impression that Mr. DeLay calls most of the shots in the House, an impression that leading Republicans say is false.

Yet Mr. Hastert, who has been in the House since 1987, remains something of an enigma because of his restrained style and aversion to the spotlight.

''I spent the summer asking people about him,'' said Jonathan Franzen, the novelist who wrote a lengthy profile of Mr. Hastert published this fall in The New Yorker. ''I never entirely answered the question to my satisfaction as to whether he really is a power in the House or whether it is useful to everyone at the White House or in the House to speak as if he is.''

In the case of the prescription drug program, key participants agree that Mr. Hastert, working with Dr. Frist, was invaluable.

''We really had to work hand-in-hand to make this happen,'' said Dr. Frist, who said he and Mr. Hastert commuted across the Capitol Rotunda to each another's offices almost daily as they pushed the Medicare plan ahead.

As negotiations between House and Senate Republicans teetered in mid-November and it seemed the chances for the Medicare measure might slip away, Mr. Hastert and Dr. Frist stepped in over the heads of the two top Republican negotiators, Representative Bill Thomas of California and Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa.

The two leaders cut off the negotiations and proposed scaling back a chief demand by House Republicans that Medicare be forced to compete with private insurers on its drug plan. Instead, they offered an approach that would allow trial competition in selected locales. Mr. Thomas, unhappy with the offer, nevertheless took it and reshaped it, putting a final deal within reach.

John C. Rother, policy director at AARP, said, ''We would have opposed the bill instead of supporting it'' had the compromise failed.

Mr. Hastert counted on AARP's support to attract enough Democratic votes in the House to offset defections by conservative Republicans. What he did not count on was the ability of House Democratic leaders to impose such strict party discipline on their members that only a handful were willing to vote for the bill when it hit the floor. That development left Mr. Hastert several votes short and scrambling early on Nov. 22. In one of the exchanges that has drawn the most attention, Mr. Hastert repeatedly went to Representative Nick Smith of Michigan, putting an arm around him as he made his case, even leaning on him at one point.

Mr. Smith, who is retiring and hopes to be succeeded by his son, did not budge. He later said lawmakers on the floor held out both the promise of aggressive support and the threat of political retribution for his son's campaign depending on his vote, which prompted calls for an investigation. The Justice Department has said it will review the complaints.

Mr. Hastert said nothing of the sort passed between him and Mr. Smith. Nor did he promise lawmakers any other projects for their votes, he said; ''we didn't give away a dime.''

He finally found a couple of switchers, allowing him to let the gavel fall just before 6 a.m., outraging Democrats who said the extended vote was far worse than one orchestrated by a previous speaker, Jim Wright, a Democrat, that outraged many of the same Republicans in 1987.

Mr. Hastert is comfortable with his actions, saying that to create a Medicare benefit, he was willing to control the clock on what would normally be a 15-minute vote.

''I guess it goes back to my background in coaching. You only have the opportunity to score once in a while,'' he said, adding, ''History will show we did the right thing.''

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