GOP leaders huddle as 106th Congress nears

House Chief Deputy Majority Whip Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., expected to be nominated for speaker Tuesday by the GOP Conference, and the new House GOP leadership team today continued to prepare for the 106th Congress, with a leadership meeting scheduled for 4 p.m. today.

At sessions today and Tuesday, Hastert is expected to highlight the party's four-point agenda for the new Congress: cutting taxes, reforming education, strengthening national defense and shoring up Social Security.

Also on today's agenda is a briefing by incoming Rules Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., on the leadership's package of proposed rules changes-which could include bringing the spartan House gift ban rules passed by the 104th Congress into line with the more accommodating Senate gift ban.

The most important piece of business for the GOP Conference Tuesday will be to nominate Hastert for speaker, along with discussing the recommended rules changes. In addition, the Conference must attend to housekeeping chores such as approving panel assignments and appointing House officers.

Retiring Rep. Robert Livingston, R-La.-who was expected to succeed outgoing Speaker Gingrich before announcing last month he would leave Congress in the wake of revelations of marital infidelity-is already making the transition to life after Capitol Hill. When the GOP Conference nominated Livingston for speaker after the elections, he relinquished his seat on the Appropriations panel, which he had chaired since the Republican takeover in 1994. With no committee assignments for the new Congress, Livingston spokesman Mark Corallo said Livingston "is relaxing, going through 21 years of stuff and looking forward to the future." He added that Livingston, who expects to stay on Capitol Hill for about six months, will continue casting votes and working on various issues.

As he prepares to assume the speakership, Hastert has already signed up a number of experienced Hill hands. Scott Palmer, Hastert's chief of staff in the chief deputy whip's office, will run the new speaker's office. Hastert also will take floor assistant Sam Lancaster with him to the speaker's office. Ralph Hellmann, Majority Whip Tom DeLay's one-time policy director and then director of federal government relations/House for the National Federation of Independent Business, will be named Hastert's policy director.

Gingrich policy director Jack Howard will remain in the speaker's office, with responsibility for bicameral relations and liaison to the White House. House Ethics Committee Chief Counsel Ted Van Der Meid will become counsel to the speaker. Dan Keniry, majority staff director for the House Rules Committee under outgoing Chairman Gerald Solomon, R-N.Y., will move over to the speaker's floor office, where Martha Morrison and Ron Lasch are staying on. In addition, Gingrich assistant Kathryn Lehman has signed on as policy director to DeLay.

Meanwhile, back in his suburban Chicago district, Hastert late last week continued to emphasize the need for Social Security reform, tax cuts and a renewal of public faith in Congress. Hastert called Social Security reform "the No. 1 priority" for the 106th Congress, the Associated Press reported, and urged passage of tax cuts that would reach a "broader spectrum" of taxpayers than those affected by the $500 per child tax credit passed in 1997.

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