Promoted for the speaker's job by Mr. DeLay in 1998, Mr. Hastert will for the first time be governing the House without his constant assistance because of Mr. DeLay's exile from the leadership after his indictment at home this week on charges of violating campaign finance laws.
Even before Mr. DeLay was forced to step aside, divisions were growing among Republicans over the response to Hurricane Katrina. Now the possibility of leadership struggles in Mr. DeLay's absence could roil Republicans more.
The speaker acknowledged that it would require an adjustment without Mr. DeLay at his side for at least the immediate future. "Sure," Mr. Hastert said in an interview. "That is why we are trying to share some of that responsibility and brought in some good people to help."
Trying to regroup from the turmoil accompanying Mr. DeLay's departure from his post, Mr. Hastert met on Friday with his new leadership team in an effort to sort out responsibilities. On hand were Representatives Roy Blunt of Missouri, the Republican whip who assumed the majority leader's post on Wednesday; David Dreier of California, the Rules Committee chairman; Eric Cantor of Virginia, the deputy whip, and Deborah Pryce of Ohio, the head of the Republican conference.
Mr. DeLay also attended before flying to Houston, where he was met by cheering supporters at a rally. Top Republicans say he will continue to play a substantive role though it remains undefined.
Mr. Hastert entered the Republican leadership in 1995 as deputy to Mr. DeLay when the latter became the whip after Republicans gained control of the House. The two remained a highly effective tandem even as Mr. Hastert rose above his mentor.
Mr. Hastert served as a sounding board for lawmakers and offered a contrast to the go-for-broke style of Mr. DeLay, who handled the nuts and bolts of House operations and delivered elusive votes on messy House issues. There was steady traffic between the speaker's office on the second floor of the Capitol and the leader's suite below as the two plotted their control of the House.
Representative Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia expressed a similar sentiment. "Somebody has to pick up the burden," he said. The void left by Mr. DeLay has already prompted some anxiety among Republican activists. One senior party official, who did not want to be named while disclosing Republican concerns about the situation, said interest groups had been calling in recent days, asking who they should approach with their issues since they typically had just left them in Mr. DeLay's hands.
And Democrats plan to try to take advantage as well. They believe that Mr. Hastert and Mr. Blunt will be less likely to be able to hold Republicans together for difficult votes that lie ahead on spending and tax cuts, among others. Mr. DeLay was a master, using his extensive knowledge of members' weak spots mixed with cajoling and the suggestion of possible political trouble.
While Mr. Hastert has never faced the ethical questions that have dogged Mr. DeLay, Democrats note that it was Mr. Hastert who changed the leadership of the ethics committee after it cited Mr. DeLay last year and also engineered changes in House ethics rules that were viewed as making it more difficult to pursue inquiries. The resulting controversy paralyzed the ethics committee until Mr. Hastert agreed to a House vote reversing the changes.
Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, recalled this week that it was Mr. Hastert who "gutted the membership of the ethics committee, taking out anyone whom they thought was responsible for the admonishment for Mr. DeLay."
Democrats and some Republicans also noted the Hastert-led process for the temporary replacement of Mr. DeLay was troubled, with indications that it would first be Mr. Dreier before Mr. Blunt was selected. Mr. Hastert's allies say he is fully capable of doing what needs to be done in the days ahead, both advancing Republican legislation and reconciling the growing tensions among his membership. They note that he rose to the speakership in a time of crisis after the dethroning of Newt Gingrich, the New York Times reports.
"Denny is good at picking up the pieces," said John Feehery, a former Hastert spokesman who is now an official at the Motion Picture Association of America. "He is a very soothing influence. At the end of the day, I think people will be looking to Denny for leadership."