From wings, Livingston makes grand entrance Louisiana conservative responds to Republicans' poor election results

November 07, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writers David Folkenflik and Karen Hosler contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Needing a lawmaker with nerve enough to slash beloved federal programs, House Speaker Newt Gingrich plucked Rep. Bob Livingston out of the pack of Appropriations Committee members nearly four years ago and propelled him into the powerful and coveted chairman's seat.

Yesterday, Livingston proved he had nerve enough -- and then some.

The lanky, conservative Louisiana Republican announced he was challenging his former mentor -- "my dear friend, Newt Gingrich, my friend for the last 20 years" -- for the speaker's own job, prompting Gingrich only hours later to take the stunning step of resigning from Congress.

The pragmatic and courtly, yet quick-tempered Livingston, 55, was close to announcing his own retirement from the House last spring, interested in pursuing a more lucrative line of work such as lobbying. But after entreaties by business leaders and Gingrich himself, the lawyer and former assistant U.S. attorney reversed course. He decided to run for a 12th term and position himself to succeed Gingrich as speaker whenever his longtime friend stepped down.

Election prompts action

But in the wake of the GOP's surprisingly poor showing in Tuesday's election, Livingston decided that, loyal friend or not, he would not wait.

"I just think that my talents as a manager are more in demand than his are," Livingston said at a news conference yesterday.

As he delicately hinted, where Gingrich was the dreamer, he is the doer, the one "making sure the trains run on time."

Livingston was given the most practical of jobs when the Republicans took over the House: cutting the rate of federal spending dollar by dollar to make good on the GOP promise to shrink the government.

On his first day as appropriations chairman, in case anyone doubted his budget-cutting zeal, he showed up with a machete, a Bowie knife, and an alligator-skinning knife or "Cajun scalpel."

Later that year, after he had been working around the clock one day, nerves frayed, energy fading, temper flickering, he was asked if had any second thoughts. "This has been the best year of my life," he said, his face brightening into a huge smile, thrilled at finally being in the center of the action after years in the House minority.

Interest declined

But as the Republicans' political fortunes have waxed and mostly waned since then, Livingston has lost enthusiasm for the cause as defined by Gingrich and also has become less involved.

Last month, Livingston was miffed at being largely left out of the loop when Gingrich, House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Senate GOP leaders negotiated a $500 billion spending bill with the White House behind closed doors. The bill was widely criticized by conservatives who had been committed to using the budget surplus to cut taxes rather than increase government spending.

As much as Livingston disliked the bill -- and the way it was put together -- he didn't want a reprise of the 1995 government shutdown, an occasion that led to one of his most controversial moments on Capitol Hill.

As Republicans voted, three days before Christmas, to extend the government shutdown, Livingston bellowed on the House floor, in Churchillian fashion: "We will never, never, never give in. We will stay here until doomsday."

Replayed over and over on television, he became as much a symbol as Gingrich of GOP intransigence.

"His temperature rises, and he's off," said Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

But Hoyer, who considers Livingston a good friend, said the Louisiana lawmaker "has become less confrontational, less partisan and more trying to forge agreement" in the past three years.

"Bob Livingston is essentially an institutional member," Hoyer says. "He cares about the institution. He realizes that in order to get a product in a clearly divided body, it is necessary to pass bills that have an appeal to both sides. He's a conservative, but not a zealot."

Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, lamented that a Livingston speakership would probably harm the Democrats' fortunes. Not only would Livingston be seen by voters as a more appealing figure to lead the GOP, but the Democrats will be deprived of Gingrich, whom they had held up as a figure to be reviled.

Modest beginnings

Bearing the name of the New York aristocrat who administered the oath of office to George Washington and helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase, Livingston reflects the conservatism of the nearly all-white New Orleans suburbs that he represents.

Despite his ancestry, Livingston grew up in modest circumstances, enlisting in the Navy after his freshman year at Tulane University, but returning to Tulane several years later to graduate and earn a law degree.

Coincidentally, Livingston pointed out yesterday, he graduated from Tulane Law School the same year Gingrich received his doctorate in history from Tulane University's graduate school.

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