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Illinois grappling with loss of Hastert's clout

Illinois grappling with loss of Hastert's clout

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SPRINGFIELD - After a long night of watching election returns, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin was startled to receive a telephone call from President Bush at 6:30 Wednesday morning.

The president was wondering if Durbin would like to drop by for some coffee, the Illinois Democrat said.

Before the lunch hour hit, Durbin would receive two more post-election calls from the White House, one of which was advance notice that Donald Rumsfeld soon would be out the door as defense secretary.

"That's never happened before," said Durbin.

As the second ranking Democrat in the Senate, Durbin was experiencing the new reality in national politics.

The Democratic sweep Tuesday has given Durbin's party a seat at the table in Washington D.C. and the change is causing major political waves in Illinois.

Just as Durbin is being pushed into a higher profile leadership role, Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois is handing over his gavel after more than seven years at the helm of the House.

Though out of the majority, U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, a Peoria Republican, is set to move up in seniority on the House Appropriations Committee. And, he intends to investigate whether there is a place for him in party leadership.

Republican U.S. Reps. John Shimkus of Collinsville, Tim Johnson of Urbana and Jerry Weller of Morris all were re-elected Tuesday, but find themselves in the minority.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello of Belleville cruised to another win and is poised to chair the aviation subcommittee on the House Transportation Committee.

And, the open seat race to replace U.S. Rep. Lane Evans ended with longtime Evans aide Phil Hare beating Republican Andrea Zinga.

LaHood and Shimkus say the loss of Hastert as speaker will have a significant impact on Illinois.

"He's been enormously important for our state," said LaHood.

Despite the loss of clout, members of the delegation say Illinois is not likely to suffer.

For example, despite being in the minority, Durbin has teamed with GOP lawmakers in House to secure funding for local projects, such as a transportation center in Normal and new roads in Springfield.

"Durbin has been superb," said Johnson, whose only experience in the minority party was when he was a member of the Illinois General Assembly.

Shimkus said the Illinois delegation works well together on "nuts and bolts issues" no matter the partisan stripe.

"My gut tells me we're going to be okay," Shimkus said Wednesday.

LaHood said Republicans lost power because of three issues, including the war in Iraq, ethical questions stemming from scandals and the debate over immigration and border security. Each issue played a different role in each congressional district

Durbin said Democrats must use their newfound power to address terrorism and "bread and butter" issues such as the price of gas and health care.

"We have to make sure we have a rock solid agenda," said Durbin.

Hare said Democrats must come up with a plan to deal with the war in Iraq. That, he said, was the primary message the party received from voters.

"I think, clearly, we have to have something concrete," Hare said.

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