(CNSNews.com) - Rep. Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican who served as speaker of the House from 1999 through 2006, said on Friday that he will not seek re-election in 2008.
"It was a great personal privilege and honor for this former teacher and wrestling coach to have been elected and to have served the American people," the 65-year-old congressman stated, though he described his tenure as speaker in less-than-glowing terms.
"When you are speaker, you're almost a prisoner in that office," Hastert told reporters at a news conference in Yorkville, Ill. "You really didn't go out of your office because they had 26 people asking you for something without an appointment, just trying to grab you. You were vulnerable every time you walked out."
The GOP leader added that the time had come for him to leave Washington. "I see an awful lot of policy being made that, you know, I wouldn't do that," he said. "But that's what being in the majority and the minority are all about."
Hastert was first elected to represent the state's 14th Congressional District in 1986. He listed passing President Bush's tax cuts and the Medicare prescription drug plan as his top accomplishments, though his tenure as speaker ended when the Democrats became the majority after the 2006 midterm elections.
The congressman's public service was praised by leaders on both sides of the political aisle on Friday.
President Bush released a statement calling Hastert "a good and decent man" who was also "a strong and effective speaker."
"After teaching government and history at Yorkville High School in Illinois, Denny began making history serving in the Illinois House of Representatives and the United States House of Representatives," Bush said.
"During his two decades in Congress, Denny rose through the ranks as a hard-working member whom colleagues on both sides came to admire, trust and respect," the president stated. "He led Congress to reduce taxes, improve education, strengthen Medicare, bolster our national defense and support our troops.
"Our nation is stronger because of his service," he added.
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) called Hastert "a steady, loyal and gracious colleague and leader whose personal integrity and respect for our nation is unparalleled."
"Thanks to his leadership, our nation is stronger and more secure than we were before 9/11, working families keep more of their own money as a result of lower taxes and the retirement savings of workers and retirees are on more solid ground than ever before," Boehner said.
House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) -- the current GOP leader to serve alongside Hastert during his entire tenure as apeaker -- praised his Illinois colleague as "a plain-spoken but passionate Midwesterner" who "was able to bring together a chamber in desperate need of stability and a country in desperate need of leadership."
"His tenure as speaker made this House a better, more responsive institution in which to serve, and his work as a legislator has made this nation a better, freer and more prosperous place in which to live," Blunt stated.
Current Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also released a statement of praise for her predecessor. "Speaker Hastert has always placed a high value on public service, a calling he dedicated much of his life to as a teacher, coach and member of the House," she said.
"I salute Dennis Hastert for his service to our nation and wish him the best as he prepares for the next chapter in his life," Pelosi added.
But other Democrats are already speculating whether they can win Hastert's seat in the next Congress. Three Democrats are already running: businessman Bill Foster, attorney Jotham Stein and John Laesch, who got 40 percent of the vote in 2006 -- the former speaker's poorest showing since being elected to the office two decades ago.
However, the GOP is already fielding candidates as well, with state Sen. Chris Lauzen, former Senate candidate Jim Oberweis and Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns in the race in a district President Bush carried by a 55-44 percent margin in 2004.
Hastert became the third House Republican in two days to announce his retirement, joining Reps. Deborah Pryce (Ohio) and Chip Pickering (Miss.), who said on Thursday that they would not seek re-election next year.
That led Doug Thornell, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, to make a statement of his own: "It is not surprising House Republicans are disenchanted and calling it quits given their party's record of obstructing progress on key American priorities and rubberstamping George Bush's endless war in Iraq."
Hastert also discussed the Iraq war on Friday, saying that it was part of the reason the GOP lost control of Congress in last year's elections.
"The American people would like to see a war of three months and drop a bomb from 40,000 feet and say, 'We've done the job,'" Hastert told reporters. "But to really make changes in government in a place like Iraq or Afghanistan is a long, hard, dirty process."
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