WASHINGTON -- In the competition to succeed Rep. Tom DeLay as the leader of their caucus, House Republicans have railed for weeks against the images of autocracy and corruption that have come to surround their party's control of the chamber.
But when the party leadership gathered Friday to present its new face to the public, a familiar figure remained at the center of the table: Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, who has had the ultimate responsibility of managing the caucus and the chamber for the last seven years.
"This is certainly a brand new day for House leadership," Hastert said, introducing Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the new majority leader and second in command.
"Thanks, boss," replied Boehner, who was elected on a pledge to turn around the House Republicans' image after DeLay's indictment on corruption charges.
First picked for the speaker's job by DeLay and often described as his sidekick, Hastert has escaped the House Republicans' calls for new blood in their leadership, in large part because of his understated personality and close personal ties in the caucus. If Hastert's easygoing style did little to check DeLay's power, Republicans say, the same traits are now helping him escape the blame left in DeLay's wake.
"Hastert's approach is sort of the coach as opposed to the dominator, if you will, or the dictator," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican, alluding to Hastert's previous career as a high school wrestling coach.
But Hastert's authority as speaker was indispensable to many elements of DeLay's leadership that are now under attack from others in his party.
When DeLay faced scrutiny from the House ethics committee, Hastert sought rule changes that could have impeded the investigation, provoking a yearlong standoff with the Democrats. He also collaborated with DeLay in his forceful approach to handling legislation.
Hastert often allowed DeLay to manipulate the House schedule to hold votes open until he had cajoled enough members to turn the result his way. Once, he held the vote on the Medicare drug plan open for nearly three hours; normally, roll-call votes rarely exceed 20 minutes.
Hastert also cooperated with DeLay to block politically awkward amendments or to present revised legislation to the floor without time for study or debate.
Democrats say Hastert's role as speaker undercuts Republican talk of reform. "He was a total enabler," said Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts. "DeLay could not have done any of that without Hastert's full support of his whole operation."
Hastert has always preferred to operate behind the scenes instead of in front of cameras.
Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for Hastert, said the speaker was serving the caucus, not DeLay. "The speaker believes in following the will of his House Republican colleagues and has always been honored to serve them," he said.
Asked whether Hastert's role in DeLay's leadership undermined the image change, Boehner said no, then added: "The speaker and I have been friends for a long time. We have worked together closely, and we are going to work together closely."
Several Republicans said he was never as strong a speaker as Newt Gingrich, who engineered the Republican takeover of the House in 1994. Among the reasons for the difference, they said, was Hastert's history with DeLay. When Republicans took control of the House in 1994, Hastert helped organize DeLay's campaign for majority whip and then became his chief deputy.
About four years later, Hastert came in fourth in a race for party leader, with 18 votes. But a few weeks later, after Rep. Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana, who was set to succeed Gingrich as speaker, confessed to adultery and bowed out of the top leadership job, DeLay picked Hastert, and he was quickly elected to the post.
Frank said Hastert's low profile would protect him from the Republicans' travails. "Nobody knows who he is," Frank said. "People may have underestimated the political advantages of being boring."