The six-term Illinois Republican who emerged as the House Republicans' consensus candidate for the top job in the wake of Speaker-designate Bob Livingston's withdrawal offered few details of a legislative agenda.
But in a brief meeting with reporters packed into his district office in this small Chicago suburb, Hastert called Social Security "the No. 1 priority" for the 106th Congress. It should use part of the budget surplus to make sure the retirement system remains secure into the 21st century, he said.
In the wake of the resignation earlier this year of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., followed not long thereafter by the abrupt withdrawal by Livingston of Louisiana, Hastert said Congress should end partisan bickering that has become more acute during the consideration of President Clinton's impeachment.
"Quite frankly, to heal the wounds of Congress we need to get to work. We need to work together," he said. "We need to start to achieve things. And I think that's what will restore the American people's faith in Congress."
The Republican caucus is expected to formally anoint him as their candidate for speaker on Tuesday, followed by his election to the top post by the full House when the 106th Congress officially convenes a day later.
In discussing his hopes for the Congress that will convene next week, Hastert suggested legislation granting more relief for taxpayers. He hailed the new $500 federal tax credit but said "we need even a broader spectrum so that tax relief touches all working Americans."
In September, House Republicans pushed through a five-year, $80 billion tax cut targeted mainly at middle-class relief including the so-called "marriage penalty" paid by millions of two-income couples.
Senate Democrats and President Clinton were united in their opposition, mainly because the measure would have spent a portion of the $1.6 trillion budget surplus projected over the next decade instead of waiting until a Social Security solvency plan was ready. The Senate never took up the tax cut.
Without changes, Social Security is expected to run short of cash by 2032, after the huge Baby Boom generation retires.
GOP leaders are calling on Clinton to take the lead on the politically sensitive issue. And at a White House conference in early December, Clinton told lawmakers he was willing to consider stock market investments as one way to raise more money for Social Security something Republicans have long advocated.
But there is little consensus on how that might be accomplished, and other controversial changes would likely have to be considered as well, such as raising the retirement age. Both Democrats and Republicanhave pledged to work toward a solution next year, but for now it is unclear how they will proceed.
Hastert, a former high school teacher and wrestling coach, also said more good teachers must be put in classrooms "and we need to give those people the resources to get the job done."
Hastert said he plans to talk with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and other Republican leaders about Clinton's impeachment trial, but he would not directly say whether the Senate should hear witnesses. The all-Republican prosecution team led by fellow Illinois Rep. Henry Hyde is leaning toward presenting witnesses, but the Senate has not decided if they would be allowed.
"I think he's (Hyde) entitled to make his case before the Senate, but how that's done is really the Senate's business," Hastert said.
Hastert sandwiched the photo opportunity and brief news conference around a day of phone calls as he and his staff try to get a handle on the logistics of preparing for the incoming Congress and his sudden role as leading man.
His obscure position as deputy majority whip for House Republicans was transformed when Livingston, the heir apparent to Gingrich, announced his retirement Dec. 19 after admitting to extramarital affairs.
Since then, Hastert's office has been buried with hundreds of interview requests.
Hastert emphasized that he doesn't want his new high profile to completely change his low-key life, reminding reporters twice that he didn't seek the speaker's position.
"I appreciate my home here on the Fox River and never intended to make my home or my dwelling on the Potomac River, and I will continue to do that," he said.
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