WASHINGTON – House Speaker Dennis Hastert is expected by many Republicans to step aside as the GOP's leader if Democrats win big in next week's election. He may be on his way out even if the GOP emerges with a narrow majority.
The No. 2 House Republican, Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, is looking very much like a candidate to fill Hastert's shoes even though some Republicans appear to be agitating for fresh faces all around, win or lose.
There's lots of grumbling among Republican insiders over real and imagined leadership lapses. Not the least of those is the way Hastert's office handled -- mishandled, some critics say -- the Mark Foley page scandal.
Earlier episodes, including changing House rules two years ago to protect former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, in case he got indicted, helped breed the unhappiness. Interviews with current and former congressional aides, GOP lobbyists and strategists reveal surprisingly widespread discontent with Hastert, suggesting a demoralizing election could cement calls within GOP ranks for new leadership.
"He's in jeopardy whether we win or lose," said GOP lobbyist Jim Dyer, a former staff chief for the House Appropriations Committee. "If we lose, I think the party will want somebody younger and more articulate to carry its message as minority leader and I'm guessing that'll be John Boehner."
While Boehner isn't making any overt moves on Hastert, he's clearly positioning himself to move up when and if Hastert moves on. He has stepped into an election-season leadership vacuum, staffing a pre-election war room called the "Majority Project" and has raised his media profile.
Hastert, meanwhile, has had to assume a lower stance this campaign season amid questions about how his office handled complaints about Ex-Rep. Foley's behavior regarding male former House pages.
Foley resigned abruptly on Sept. 29 after being confronted with sexually explicit computer messages to former pages.
Republicans already showed signs of restiveness earlier this year in elevating Boehner to majority leader over Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who represented the established leadership team.
"If they keep the majority by one or two seats, there's going to be some hard and fast discussions with some members about Denny's future," said a Republican lobbyist with close ties to House GOP leaders. "I don't think he can stand for speaker, not the way things are going."
The GOP lobbyist demanded anonymity given the sensitivity of talking about the powerful Hastert, as did a variety of GOP insiders pondering the possibility of a leadership shuffle.
Hastert vows to soldier on.
"Republicans will win and I will run for speaker," he told Fox News' Sean Hannity on Sunday. Asked if he is confident he'll prevail, Hastert responded: "One election at a time."
Potential aspirants for Hastert's job -- from Boehner to Mike Pence, R-Ind., a leader of the GOP's conservative wing -- insist they are focusing on trying to hold onto the House rather than thinking about moving up in leadership.
"Boehner has both publicly and privately expressed support" for Hastert, said Hastert spokesman Kevin Madden.
"We're focused on winning the election," said Pence spokesman Matt Lloyd. "The other stuff can wait until Nov 8."
A recent anonymous poll of GOP insiders in National Journal magazine, closely read by Washington leaders, contained discouraging results for both Boehner and Hastert. The poll of 70 GOP activists, strategists and lobbyists found only 14 percent supporting Hastert returning as speaker and just 26 percent preferring Boehner.
Former Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas -- an architect of the 1994 GOP House takeover -- said in Sunday's Washington Post that today's Republicans "forgot the party's principles, became enamored with power and position and began putting politics over policy."
Defenders of Hastert dismiss speculation about his future as a pre-election parlor game for Washington lobbyists and Capitol Hill staff aides. They say there is still a deep reservoir of affection and respect for Hastert, who took over the speakership in the aftermath of the disappointing 1998 campaign and has led the party to numerous successes during President Bush's time in office.
"There's some disillusionment over the whole Foley episode," said GOP strategist Charles Black. "But you have not heard members saying the speaker shouldn't be speaker, and that's the only constituency that matters."
It's taken as a given that, after eight years as speaker, Hastert has no desire to be minority leader if Republicans lose the House. As speaker, Hastert has been a behind-the-scenes consensus-builder. Typically, the role of minority leader is one of being a guerrilla fighter.
"The role of minority leader is very different from the role of speaker," said Mike Franc of the Heritage Foundation, a GOP-leaning think tank.
Hastert also has had his share of health problems, including diabetes, and many expect the upcoming term will be his last in the House.
"When Republicans keep control, Denny deserves the right to leave on his own terms," said former Hastert spokesman John Feehery, executive vice president at the Motion Picture Association of America. "And I think the members will give him that right."