WASHINGTON -- Rep. Robert L. Livingston, the pragmatic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, all but seized the reins of the House of Representatives yesterday after his sole remaining rival, California Rep. Christopher Cox, dropped out of the race in a show of Republican unity.
Livingston's future job seems so assured that last night retiring Speaker Newt Gingrich hailed the lanky, 55-year-old Louisianian as "the next speaker of the House."
In a calculated show of support, Livingston warmly greeted Gingrich at the speaker's farewell address to the political action committee GOPAC. Gingrich, in turn, endorsed Livingston's remarkably swift ascent to the speakership, saying it was time to relinquish a title Gingrich had worked to attain virtually his entire life.
"I had to make the decisive choice between my own interests and what I believed to be the more important cause of my country and my party," Gingrich told the cheering party faithful, saying he had lately become an "excuse for divisiveness and factionalism" in the GOP.
"If every Republican would pull together with Bob Livingston big ideas will continue to move us forward," Gingrich said of the man who challenged his reign Friday and quickly pushed him into early retirement.
Gingrich offered no hint of his plans beyond saying that he would remain in public life in some fashion.
With the speakership virtually a lock, attention shifted to the raging battles for lesser Republican posts. Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, a strong potential challenger for the No. 2 post of House majority leader, decided not to run against the incumbent, Rep. Dick Armey of Texas.
But Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington state did throw her hat into the ring for majority leader last night, calling Armey a "great gentleman" but declaring that "there is a time when great changes can be made."
Still, by the time the dust settles from the Republican upheaval sparked by last week's election, it is possible that the only top member of Gingrich's leadership triumvirate to have fallen may be the speaker himself.
Armey has the support of most of the party's old guard. And the No. 3 House leader, Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, so far has no challenger. House Republicans will meet in little more than a week to vote on a leadership slate for the next Congress, allowing little time for new challengers to garner support.
Yet even if only one major change in the top leadership occurs, the House will be a drastically different place next year -- both in temperament and operational style.
"The race for speaker is over -- Bob Livingston is home free," said Rep. Michael N. Castle, a moderate Delaware Republican who observed that the difference between Gingrich's confrontational style and Livingston's workmanlike pragmatism would be "like night and day."
It remains to be seen whether Livingston can unite a fractious Republican Party still warring over the meaning of last week's election, only the second midterm election since the Civil War to bolster the strength of the president's party. Democrats gained five House seats, cutting the Republicans' lead to just 11 seats.
Running like clockwork
No one expects that Livingston would run the House with anything like the ideological fervor and force of personality that drove Gingrich's political agenda. Instead, Livingston is likely to make sure that the basic functions of Congress -- such as passing annual budget and spending bills -- run like clockwork. And he will work with Democrats if necessary to do that. Livingston has also signaled he will return basic legislative power to committee chairmen rather than using hand-picked task forces to craft Republican bills, as Gingrich did.
Cox, a conservative who is the fifth-ranking House Republican, dropped out of the race for speaker yesterday after concluding that Livingston had wrapped up the votes he needs when the House Republicans meet Nov. 18 to choose their leaders for the next Congress.
In a letter to all House Republicans yesterday, Cox said that he would support Livingston "in the interests of unifying the conference."
Gingrich tried, often in vain, to pass legislation with a united Republican front and no appeals for Democratic support. Livingston is more likely to sacrifice some Republican support from his right flank and appeal for Democratic votes.
'Got to reach across the aisle'
"If he tries to adopt policies solely within the Republican conference, he will fail, period, the end," warned Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat who has worked with Republicans to craft legislation with broad bipartisan appeal. "He's got to reach across the aisle."
Some Republicans agreed and said they were confident that Livingston would usher in a far more cooperative era after four tumultuous years of Gingrich rule.