Rep. Dennis Hastert (R, Ill.) is almost certain to be the next Speaker of the House when the 106th Congress convenes Jan. 6. A little-known legislator representing a district west of Chicago, Hastert has quickly gathered support of Republican leaders for the House's top post following the surprise resignation announcement last week of Rep. Bob Livingston (R, La.), who had been Speaker-designate. Hastert's election clearly would please manufacturers. He's a winner of the Manufacturing Legislative Excellence Award from the National Assn. of Manufacturers, which calculates that in the last Congress he voted 83% of the time with the association's position on key legislative issues. He was a key player helping defeat President Clinton's health-reform plan in 1993, and in the last Congress crafted the Republican alternative to the Administration's "patients' bill of rights" opposed by industry. He was due to become chairman of the Oversight & Investigations Subcommittee, a panel of the House Commerce Committee in the new Congress. Hastert has been deputy majority whip to Rep. Tom DeLay (R, Tex.), who has emerged as the GOP' s strongman in the wake of the departure of former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R, Ga.). Observers point out that Hastert has a reputation for being non-ideological and an effective consensus-builder, but question how independent he will be from the hard-edged DeLay.