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HASTERT SAYS HOUSE GOP REFLECTS VOTERS

Speaker J. Dennis Hastert came to Buffalo Friday with this mission: to portray a House of Representatives reflecting American voters on everything from tax relief to a patients' bill of rights.

The Illinois Republican, starring at a fund-raising event for Republican Reps. Jack F. Quinn Jr. of Hamburg and Thomas M. Reynolds of Clarence at the new Pierce Arrow Museum on Seneca Street, emphasized his half of the U.S. Congress is "working to get things done" -- even if his Republican majority occasionally falls short.

"We poll all the time and when I first took over, we were 16 points behind the Democrats," he said in an interview. "We're now up around 50 or 52 percent approval -- higher than we ever were. I think people get tired of political fighting back and forth. I think they want to see some productivity."

The speaker's best example? President Bush's tax-reduction bill, which will average $417 for about six million New Yorkers.

"Basically, this has been real tax relief," he said. "The right thing to do, I believe, given the surplus."

But Hastert also acknowledged the difficulty Bush and his Republican allies encounter in a closely divided Congress. When questioned about recent polls showing a decline in voters' confidence in the president, he said the Senate has approved only about 120 of the 430 people he will appoint.

"It's hard to govern," he said. "So getting everything off the ground and getting your programs out and with the right rhetoric you need to have is very difficult. That's coming together."

One area of presidential progress is energy policy, Hastert said. The energy crisis in California and high prices at gasoline pumps across the nation is the reason for the drop in presidential popularity, he said.

But he also blamed Democrats for failing to support new oil drilling and new electrical generation or lines.

"Part of it is the federal regulation we have," he said. "We need to untangle some of that."

Hastert acknowledged that Republicans have abandoned their leadership in major areas, including energy policies such as drilling off the Florida coast.

"You can't constrain everybody on every vote," he said. "So, on some of those things, they're going to show their points of view and represent their districts. I understand that."

Still, he said Republicans are maintaining "discipline" when it comes to spending -- enough to allow for more small-scale tax relief in the future.

Hastert also predicted that efforts led by Quinn to hike the minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 over the next two years will succeed in some form by fall.

"Jack's going to be the prime mover on that," he said, adding that the bill does not rank for him as a personal priority.

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