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Former US House Speaker Hastert Says Farewell to Congress

The longest-serving Republican speaker of the House of Representatives gave his formal farewell to Congress on Thursday. Dennis Hastert presided over the House for nearly a decade, a period that included the final years of the administration of Democratic president Bill Clinton, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and most of the term of current Republican President George Bush. More from VOA's Dan Robinson on Capitol Hill.

A former high school teacher and wrestling coach from mid-western Aurora, Illinois, Dennis Hastert was elected to Congress in 1986.

After about a dozen years in which he rose to prominence in his party's leadership, fellow Republicans chose him in 1999 as speaker, second in the line of presidential succession after the U.S. vice president.

Amid intense public dissatisfaction over the war in Iraq and congressional ethics lapses, among other issues, Democrats took control of Congress in the 2006 mid-term congressional elections.

Hastert turned over the speaker's gavel to California Democrat Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to hold the powerful position, and both lawmakers put aside their partisan differences in remarks on the House floor:

HASTERT: "The gentle lady from California, Mrs. Pelosi, will assume the duties as our speaker. And I know she will do so with skill and grace and that she will bring honor to this institution."

PELOSI: "In Congress, we hold the title of honorable because we serve in Congress, we hold the title of honorable by virtue of our office. Dennis Hastert holds it by virtue of his character."

Hastert also formed a strong relationship with President Bush, who in a joint appearance in Chicago before the 2006 congressional elections praised the Illinois lawmaker for advancing the Republican agenda:

"You know, he is not one of these Washington politicians who spews a lot of hot air," said President Bush. "He just gets the job done."

On Thursday, in a formal farewell address, Hastert paid tribute to current speaker Pelosi, and returned to a theme he sounded in the past, what he calls the breakdown in civility in a Congress divided by partisan disagreements.

"When I addressed this chamber for the first time as your speaker, I noted that solutions to problems cannot be found in a pool of bitterness," said Hastert. "Those words are as true today as they were then. We each have a responsibility to be passionate about our beliefs. That is healthy government. But we also have a responsibility to be civil, to be open-minded and to be fair - to listen to one another and work in good faith to find solutions to the challenges facing this nation.

Pelosi, who since becoming speaker has solidified a reputation for political toughness, presided over Thursday's special event:

"Though we have from time to time on occasion differed on issues, we all agree on the importance of public service, the kind of public service that has been the hallmark of speaker Hastert's career, whether in the classroom or in the Congress of the United States," said Nancy Pelosi.

Dennis Hastert's time as speaker was not without its difficulties, particularly in his final years which were marked by controversy and fierce partisan exchanges.

In 2006, critics called for his resignation amid allegations he failed to aggressively investigate actions of a Republican lawmaker, Mark Foley, who resigned after being accused of sending sexually-explicit emails and Internet messages to young male congressional interns.

Hastert refused to step down, and addressed reporters in his home town.

"I am deeply sorry that this has happened, and the bottom line is that we are taking responsibility because ultimately as someone has said in Washington before, the buck stops here," he said.

After his resignation from Congress becomes effective, making him one of a dozen or so Republican lawmakers to retire this year, Hastert intends to return to work in the private sector.

But he is expected to play a role in helping Republican congressional candidates in their campaigns before the 2008 presidential election and voting to elect members of Congress.