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Hastert lacks power to keep GOP on course

Presiding over a legislative body with only a five-seat majority requires forceful, creative leadership and the ability of the controlling party to get along with itself. Despite having assumed power as the House majority party in 1995, Republicans have yet to demonstrate that either of these elements is present. In fact, just the opposite is true as the GOP reputation for being our only organized political party seems to be wallowing in a sea of philosophical infighting fostered by tepid, benign leadership. Perhaps Republicans aren't supposed to control Congress, or at least not the House.

The Republican revolution of five years ago which held out so much promise after 40 years of almost despotic leadership by the Democrats has turned into a primer on how not to succeed in management.From their almost disastrous preoccupation with impeachment last term to this year's inability to handle even its most basic function, the funding of government, House leaders have given voters pretty much all the evidence they need to turn the whole mess back to its former handlers.

In a desperate effort to keep his party from committing political suicide, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, one of the more unlikely legislative yeomen in congressional history to achieve such a rank, finally has stepped up to make his voice heard over that of some of his party's ideologues.

Boys, he told this tattered, divided army in so many words, either straighten this out or say bye-bye in the next election. The "either we all hang together or we all hang separately" message had the instant effect of freeing up at least one stalled appropriations measure. But the high hurdles of defense spending and other non-entitlement measures are still to be leaped. Reports of the confrontation, if that's what you could call it, say that Hastert did so without raising his voice or threatening or pounding his fist.

Too bad. That's probably what was needed, if only to demonstrate that he truly is the speaker and not just a puppet for the likes of Whip Tom DeLay, who has built his own power base and infrastructure that makes him the major force.

Unfortunately, Hastert's efforts to protect his party from charges of obstructionism have not been helped by his own capitulation on the gun-control provisions of the Senate-passed bill to deal with youth violence.

For the moment, it seems, the National Rifle Association has convinced the GOP leadership that its only chance of survival is to undo the Senate's closing of the gun show loophole.

It's a mistake. Polls clearly demonstrate that Americans want something done about the uncontrolled availability of firearms and that means requiring background checks at gun shows where anyone, including homicidal maniacs of all ages, can buy powerful weapons, most of which absolutely have no sporting applications.

The NRA openly concedes that its staff members helped draft the House Judiciary Committee "compromise," which in reality would so water down the requirement for background checks at gun shows as to make it practically useless. The House bill would define a gun show as a place where 10 or more vendors are present and allow buyers at gun shows to avoid a check by finalizing a deal away from the show's site. This, of course, is after the NRA reportedly spent a million dollars or so whipping its 2.8 million members into a frenzy with the usual scare tactics and then directing their telephone and letter onslaught at House members.

The response by House leaders is to bypass the normal legislative process. They plan to rush the NRA's formula for perpetuating nearly unfettered access to firearms to the House floor, bypassing the contentious Judiciary Committee and once again demonstrating the GOP's propensity for shooting itself in the foot. Given the nature and makeup of this Congress, Hastert, if he is able to take charge now, can expect very little cooperation. He has yet to demonstrate the quality so important to any hope of success -- the ability to affect compromise among the warring elements of his own party. The problems of campaign funding, gun control and a variety of other emotional and thorny issues and the narrowness of his majority would test the mettle and brilliance of a leader far more skilled and experienced than Hastert appears to be.