House speaker-to-be supports Israel, prayer in public schools

WASHINGTON — Who is Dennis Hastert?

That's the question Jewish activists and everyone else in Washington were asking last month after the six-term Congressman from Illinois emerged as the consensus choice to fill the Republican leadership void.

The void was suddenly created when House Speaker-designate Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) announced Dec. 19 that he would resign from Congress in June, in the wake of revelations of his marital infidelity.

Hastert is expected to be elected speaker on Jan. 6.

A former high school wrestling coach, Hastert has a reputation as a consensus builder and a behind-the-scenes dealmaker. But for the most part, little is known about the man who would be third in line to become president, and the generic initial reactions from some Jewish activists reflect that.

"He's in a unique position to be a very strong speaker with universal support," said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican-aligned National Jewish Coalition. He cited Hastert's record supporting foreign aid to Israel and Jerusalem as Israel's capital, adding that his group is trying to find out more about him.

While his interactions with the Jewish community have been limited — there are relatively few Jews in Hastert's district west of Chicago — Jews from his home state say he is far from an unknown quantity.

Michael Kotzin, director of Chicago's Jewish Community Relations Council, described Hastert as a "solid Midwestern hard-working kind of guy who has been accessible to our community and has been there on Israel matters."

Chuck Brooks, executive director and treasurer of National PAC, the largest pro-Israel political action committee, noted that Hastert has a 100 percent voting record on pro-Israel issues. Hastert has visited Israel on three separate trips — with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and as part of a delegation marking Israel's jubilee.

On the church-state front, Hastert has staked out positions that are more or less in step with most conservative Republicans. The Christian Coalition gave him a 100 percent rating, and he voted this year for a constitutional amendment allowing for prayer in public schools.

Marcia Balonick, executive director of the Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs, an Illinois based multi-issue Jewish PAC, said her group has never supported Hastert because of his opposition to abortion rights, his support for school vouchers and other measures that challenge church-state separation. But she said she hoped he would be a "bipartisan player."

Hastert's emergence struck Jewish Democrats as relatively unobjectionable.

"If the standard is milquetoast, then Hastert wins with flying colors," said Stephen Silberfarb, deputy director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.