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Hastert: Primary Challenges Making Congress 'Kind Of Neurotic'

Posted: October 7, 2013

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"All of a sudden, people are looking over their shoulders," says former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. He says changes in the way campaigns are financed have led members of Congress to worry that if they're seen as not liberal or not conservative enough, they'll be challenged by their own party.

Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois is congratulated by members of Congress during the unveiling of his portrait at the Capitol in 2009.

Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois is congratulated by members of Congress during the unveiling of his portrait at the Capitol in 2009. Chip Somodevilla

When it comes to political deal-making, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert speaks from experience.

"I always had a feeling whenever I had to negotiate ... you really needed to make sure that you knew where the hole in the box was, so if you got in there, you could get out of it again," says the Illinois Republican, who was speaker from 1999 until 2007.

Hastert tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that he can't say whether House Republicans now have themselves in a box in the government shutdown fight because "we don't know what the end of this thing is yet."

"What they want ... is the president to put something on the table," he says.

Hastert's name has been bandied about frequently during the discussion of the shutdown. That's because of a principle attributed to him that says the speaker of the House shouldn't bring a measure to the floor for a vote unless it has the support of a "majority of the majority" — in other words, most of the members of the party in power.

Observers have pointed to the "Hastert rule" as the reason current Speaker John Boehner hasn't brought up a measure to fund the government that's not tied to any delay or defunding of the Affordable Care Act. Many think the "clean" funding measure could pass the Republican-controlled House — but with largely Democratic, not Republican, support. (Though Boehner has said that's not true.)

Hastert himself says that there's "confusion" about the rule named after him.

"Almost every speaker ever adhered to that," he explains. "Because if you don't have a majority of your people consistently ... you're not really leading your people anymore. You're getting votes from other places. ... You constantly have to bring people to the table to try to find consensus. And I think with some of [Boehner's] members, it's probably difficult to do."

Hastert traces some of the difficulties Boehner is now facing with his caucus to the campaign finance overhaul known as McCain-Feingold.

"When all the money went into the parties, the parties [had] kind of a homogenizing effect," Hastert says. "People didn't come out of there too far to the right or too far to the left."

That's all changed, he says, with the rise of outside groups that are targeting members of Congress they deem not liberal or not conservative enough.

"So all of a sudden, people are looking over their shoulders," Hastert says. "It used to be they're looking over their shoulders to see who their general [election] opponent is. Now they're looking over their [shoulders] to see who their primary opponent is. ... And so everybody's kind of neurotic about where their support is. And what this has done is pushed all the money to the right and to the left."

But he also says it's not just the money.

"There are a lot of people out there that are ... afraid that we're spending ourselves into oblivion," he says. "What these people are afraid of is they're going to bankrupt their children and their grandchildren if we keep government the way it is."

For more from Steve's conversation with Hastert, click on the audio link above.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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