Rick Hill, the Republican who is Montana's only member of the U.S. House of Representatives, found himself last week in much more sane territory than his workplace. Back in Montana, the congressman who won a second term in a tough race this fall reflected on Clinton's impeachment, the fall of would-be House Speaker Bob Livingston and the thin majority his party must work with in the 106th Congress, which opens this week.
Hill gave the impression of being nearly as amazed as the nation's voters at the 105th Congress' wild last days in mid-December. The United States fought a lightning war against Iraq, the House indicted Clinton on two offenses to be tried by the Senate, and Livingston, a staid conservative from Louisiana, fell from power amid charges of extramarital affairs publicized by Hustler magazine. All that looked much like a circus from outside the Beltway, but Hill said it made for a sodden atmosphere in the Capitol.
"My view has been and continues to be that this is a real somber time in Washington, and I think it will continue to be when I get back next week," he said in an interview at the Independent's offices. "I don't think anyone has any delight in what we've had to do and what the Senate will have to do. We have a lot of things we need to deal with, in terms of electing a speaker and forging ahead."
Hill, who voted for three out of the four articles of impeachment proposed by the House Judiciary Committee, claimed to be relieved that one of the hottest political issues in modern memory is now the concern of the Senate. That shift, he said, will hopefully allow a House almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans to find a new common ground.
"The Senate is way ahead of the House in terms of accomplishing things in a bipartisan fashion," Hill said. "There's an opportunity now, I think, for the House to learn how to conduct itself in a bipartisan way."
Hill has cultivated a mild, technocratic political persona at home while assembling a solidly conservative voting record in Washington. Now, with a narrow majority and serious internal rifts, the GOP seems likely to elect Dennis Hastert, a quiet Illinois conservative, to the speaker's chair. Hill reckoned Hastert to be well-suited to the task of managing the reduced, fractious Republican caucus.
"Dennis Hastert will be a very different speaker than Newt Gingrich has been or than Bob Livingston would have been," Hill said. "He's very much a behind-the-scenes operative, a person that is good at accomplishing things without making a lot of noise. We definitely want to get Social Security and Medicare rolling early in the session, and those are issues on which we need the cooperation of the president and the Democrats.
"Because of the narrow majority, it's going to be hard just to get things done."