WASHINGTON – Leaving Speaker Dennis Hastert's office with its grand view of National Mall and the city's monuments to Washington and Lincoln, a visitor may pass a winding staircase with a sign that holds new meaning: "Careful Step Down."
Most House speakers don't stick around on Capitol Hill once they leave the most powerful job in Congress, one that puts its occupant second in the line of succession to the presidency.
Hastert, however, will return to becoming just another House member — one of some 200 Republicans with no leadership titles in front of their names — in January, two days after his 65th birthday.
He'll take a $40,000-plus pay cut from his current salary of $212,100, and the concerns of his constituents in his district stretching westward from Chicago's south suburbs to near the Mississippi River will become more paramount than moving a lame-duck president's agenda.
"The speaker is a very grounded person and understands voters ultimately make the decisions, and he respects that. And he wants to get back to work for the district in Illinois," says his spokesman, Ron Bonjean.
Colleagues say he wants to work on telecommunications and health care, two issues he focused on before becoming the longest-serving Republican speaker in history.
There's speculation Hastert won't stick around long, that he will resign after laying the groundwork for a successor to keep the seat in GOP hands. Bonjean insists that Hastert is committed to serving both years of his 11th term.
They certainly couldn't be any worse than the past two years, when his image as a regular guy who never adopted the airs of high office plummeted following one scandal after another, and what Republicans took as a mandate from the 2004 election was squandered on an increasingly unpopular war and an ill-fated Social Security overhaul.
House GOP Conference Chairman Adam Putnam, a third-term lawmaker who was mentored by Hastert, said the speaker holds himself responsible for the loss of 29 Republican seats to Democrats last month and his party's control of the House.
"He probably puts more blame on himself than he deserves," said Putnam, R-Fla. "That is the kind of man he is."
Times weren't always so bad. Hastert was the point man responsible more than anyone else for driving President Bush's first-term agenda through Congress: tax cuts, school reform, collapsed trade barriers and the war on terrorism.
The piece de resistance was a massive expansion of Medicare to include government-subsidized prescription drugs for people over 65. The very idea of it was repugnant to many conservatives, but Hastert held the roll call open for more than three hours in an all-night session to wrangle just enough votes to pass it.
Democrats cried foul at how Republicans had laid claim to one of their social pillars, but the GOP picked up more seats the following election.
Events quickly soured. Hastert abruptly replaced the chairman and two other members of an ethics committee that had chastised his No. 2, then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay, for some of the tactics used in cajoling votes on the Medicare drug bill.
He had party rules changed so DeLay could continue to hold his job if he was indicted in a Texas campaign finance investigation, then changed back after a public uproar. DeLay ultimately stepped down and later resigned from Congress. Other GOP House members were indicted and convicted in lobbying scandals, including one centered on convicted influence peddler Jack Abramoff.
Earlier this year, Hastert came under fire from watchdog groups for winning federal funding for a proposed highway near his home while reaping a $1.8 million profit from land deals a few miles away from the road's location. He denied any connection.
In the fall, Hastert became a target of even some of his fellow Republicans. They contended he should resign because he or his aides had failed to act more quickly on reports of sexual come-ons by Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., to former teenage male House pages.
The House is awaiting a report from its Ethics Committee's investigation of a possible Republican cover-up of the Foley case that led to his resignation Sept. 29. Hastert and his aides testified for hours before the committee behind closed doors in October.
Hastert vowed before the Nov. 7 elections to run again for speaker. After it, he demurred on holding any party leadership.
Dallas Ingemunson, a longtime friend of Hastert and a partner in the land deals as well as a county GOP chairman in Illinois, said in an interview that Hastert is coping well with what's happened.
"He's a tough guy. He's a wrestler. He knows how to take wins and losses," said Ingemunson. "He's taking it well."
Former Rep. Tom Ewing, R-Ill., a longtime Hastert friend who is now a lobbyist, acknowledged there will be some adjustments. In addition to the pay cut and one of the most plum offices in town, he loses a limo and driver, the security detail accompanying his every step and a leadership staff of more than 30 aides.
"He's the kind of man who can be lower down the ladder and not be destroyed by it," Ewing said. "He can be the hired hand and he can be the boss. He's done both and not afraid of either one."