Former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) delivered his final speech on the House floor Thursday afternoon, signaling that the wrestling coach-turned-legislator plans to leave office before the end of the year.
In his floor speech, Hastert made no mention of the exact date when he plans to step down from the House.
Hastert announced over the summer that he would not seek re-election and his early departure from the House has been a forgone conclusion for the last several weeks. But the exact timing of the resignation has been clouded by Republican concerns over the subsequent scheduling of the special election to succeed Hastert and the potential that it could coincide with the Feb. 5 presidential primary in Illinois.
Hastert delivered his remarks Thursday from the same podium where he gave his first floor speech in 1987 and where he gave his acceptance speech after he became Speaker in 1999.
Paraphrasing from the Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes, and citing the Founding Fathers’ desire for a citizen legislature, Hastert said it was simply time for him to move on.
“It’s time for this legislator to return to being a private citizen,” Hastert said.
He added: “My heart is still here and will always be.”
Among those present in the chamber for Hastert’s farewell were former House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.). Hastert also recognized his wife, Jean, who was in the gallery, and thanked his staff over the years, many of whom also were present Thursday.
Hastert spoke of the House’s many legislative accomplishments during his eight years as Speaker and thanked his colleagues for allowing him the chance to become the longest-serving Republican to hold the job.
“It was you, the Members of this House, who gave me that opportunity longer than any other Member of my party in history and I’m grateful to you,” Hastert said.
Hastert also sounded a note of caution about the partisan rancor that continues to plague the body.
“I continue to worry about the breakdown of political civility in our discourse,” Hastert said.
In closing, Hastert cited the tradition in wrestling where competitors leave their shoes on the mat after their final match. He joked that he didn’t plan to break with House decorum by taking off his shoes.
“I do hope that I’ve left a few footprints behind that may be of value to those who come after me,” Hastert said.
Once Hastert’s resignation becomes official, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) will set the timetable for the special election.
With the Feb. 5 Illinois primary fast approaching, the open-seat race in the 14th district is already well under way.
On the Republican side, the contest is between state Sen. Chris Lauzen and dairy magnate Jim Oberweis. Oberweis has nearly universal name recognition in the Chicago area, but Lauzen is a favorite of social conservatives.
Hastert’s allies and Lauzen never have gotten along, and Hastert could choose to cast his lot with Oberweis, who has run unsuccessfully for statewide office three times.
Polls put out recently by both campaigns have shown the Republican race to essentially be even.