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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

A deal cutter with a bit of a temper

by Romesh Ratnesar

TIME magazine

What best prepares a man to be Speaker of the House? Being the water boy for his high school football team? Enjoying the rowdy pleasures of his college frat house? Or learning how to play the trumpet while driving a car? The first Republican to make a grab at Gingrich's job last week has all those qualifications, which may come in handy in a job that requires carrying water for brawling factions, holding steady in a raucous ideological environment and doing more than one thing at a time.

Oh, and Robert Livingston of Louisiana also has a black belt in Taekwondo and an instinct for the kill. If he's in a better position than his Republican competitors to nab the speakership, it's because Gingrich himself gave him a head start. In February the 55-year-old Livingston told colleagues that should Gingrich run for President in 2000, he wanted to take over. Four years earlier, Gingrich had handpicked Livingston--at the time the fifth-ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee--to become the panel's chairman. Livingston ultimately used this perch of patronage to knife his benefactor: wielding his clout as Congress's most powerful chairman--the guy who doles out the money--Livingston last week assiduously tapped a base of supporters to push Gingrich out of the way.

Livingston is known as an effective legislator, devoted to budget cutting and trading favors. He has on occasion worked into his committee's bills such politically charged measures as curtailing federal funding for abortion and clean-needle distributions. But he has also drawn the line in many cases, arguing that ideological purity shouldn't keep the government from operating. "He'll take a look at our whole agenda and cut the best deals," says New York Representative Peter King, who thinks Livingston can also placate the party's far right. "He's going to be like Reagan was. Reagan agreed with social conservatives on their issues, but he knew it was when and how you push them."

Whether social conservatives will accept part-time service is another story. And there's an additional weakness: though admired as a straight-up dealmaker, Livingston is given to double-fisted gesticulations that make him look as if he's pulling pistols. He once nearly came to blows with a staff member after reportedly informing him that "some son of a bitch on the staff has been saying bad stuff about my staff in the press, and I'm tired of it." Livingston's temper surfaced notoriously in a floor speech during the 1995 budget battle. "We will stay here until doomsday," he bellowed, arms flailing. Later he admitted that even his mother thought he looked like "a raving lunatic."

Displays like that make some insiders fret about whether he's got the equanimity for the job. Before announcing his challenge for Gingrich's post, Livingston submitted a preposterous 16-point list of demands to Gingrich that would have stripped the Speaker of virtually all his authority. The bottom of the last page read ACKNOWLEDGED AND AGREED TO WITHOUT EXCEPTION above a line for Newt's signature. A few hours later he called Gingrich to tell him to ignore it. Anti-Livingston campaigners plan to use the letter's arrogance as proof that his hotheadedness goes beyond momentary flare-ups.

Still, Livingston's early move for the gavel gives him an advantage over other contenders. During the past nine months, a gang of 35 Livingston lieutenants raised $1.3 million and contacted members behind the scenes for support. Even before last week's election, Livingston was privately assured of votes from as many as 115 members, should the door to the speakership open. Boasts Livingston ally Ron Packard of California: "I think we can wrap this up soon."

If he does, his victory will be due in part to his competitors' shortcomings. Texas' tweedy Bill Archer, the head of the Ways and Means Committee, was the favorite of the G.O.P. leadership until he pulled out on Saturday. Archer's sobriety hurt him among some in the caucus who want a charismatic Speaker with broad national appeal. So whom will they turn to? Probably not Christopher Cox, a bookish Californian who wants the job but doesn't possess the networking skills required to get it. The Young Turks may settle for playing kingmaker by throwing their support only behind a Speaker candidate willing to run on a slate with Oklahoma's Steve Largent, who is out for majority leader Dick Armey's head. But Largent has alienated moderates with his religious fervor. "He holds prayers on some appropriations bills," scoffs a Northeastern Republican. "You bring God in on the important stuff, not whether some guy should get a bridge in his district."

That leaves Livingston at the top of the list, but his ascension will not necessarily be smooth. Appearing on CNN Friday night, the only black Republican in the House, Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts--who is angling for a spot in the new leadership--hinted at more bloodletting to come. "This is kind of the way Republican politics works," he said. "You beat each other up, you eat your dead--and, you know, those standing will lead."

--Reported by James Carney, John F. Dickerson and Mark Thompson/Washington


Cover Date: November 16, 1998

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