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Many observers on both sides of the aisle have compared the relative discipline of the Republican Conference during the Hastert years to the present climate; Boehner has struggled repeatedly to reach 218 Republican votes on major bills since he took the speaker’s gavel.
Hastert, though, remembers his tenure differently.
“There was no way we could discipline our members, especially when we only had a margin of five or six votes. Why? Well, if that person wasn’t with you one day, he or she, you had to ask them for their vote the next day,” Hastert said.
The former speaker also pointed to the strong whip operation in place when he governed.
“I think we really kind of micromanaged legislation more,” he said. “When we came to the floor, we knew exactly where everybody was going to be.”
But the speaker’s job was easier in a time when earmarks and fundraising help from leadership were used to enforce party discipline. Plus, Hastert enjoyed the benefit of having a Republican president in the Oval Office during most of his tenure.
During the first two years of Hastert’s reign, however, he faced off against Democratic President Bill Clinton, although the 106th Congress did have a Republican majority in the Senate.
Hastert said a key difference was that Clinton was always willing to engage, in contrast to President Barack Obama, whom he remembers as being more aloof based on his short time in the Senate.
“I’ve served with Obama, the last two years I was speaker. And, you know, he was never engaged. He just never was engaged,” Hastert said. “He was out raising money when he was in the Senate. He never came to the Illinois delegation meetings. He wasn’t there.”