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LA Play for Power

Louisiana Rep. Livingston is courting California colleagues in effort to succeed Gingrich as speaker.

June 25, 1998|MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston represents the other LA.

Louisiana--that down-home Southern state--is Livingston's home base. But you wouldn't know it from his travel schedule this election season.

As part of an unorthodox quest for one of the most important jobs in Washington, this former New Orleans prosecutor will be campaigning in Southern California soon, along with numerous other spots far from the Big Easy. Along the way, he will be addressing voters ineligible to vote for him. His goal: a job that may not be available for years.

There is nothing quixotic about all this. Livingston's maneuvering is part of a plan in which Republican House members from California are an essential element. If it all plays out according to his script, Livingston will be the next speaker of the House (assuming that the GOP maintains control of the chamber for the foreseeable future).

Livingston's strategy boils down to this: To replace Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), he will need the backing of a majority of House Republicans (114 of the GOP's 227 members). California now has 23 of those votes--a number that could rise or fall slightly but is virtually certain to be more than any other state. And that explains Livingston's Golden State travel itinerary.

The end of this month will find him stumping for Republican House candidates from San Diego to Sherman Oaks. He has also set up a political action committee to boost campaign war chests for these politicians--both incumbents and challengers alike.

By being so helpful to the Californians now, Livingston hopes to curry enough goodwill to win their votes for the speakership later.

If there is an opening, that is.

Livingston, who came within a hair of retiring from his own seat this year, says he is only interested in the speakership if Gingrich decides to leave. Having staved off a coup attempt last year, Gingrich insists he is staying put until just after the 2002 election, the target date he long ago set for giving up the post.

But Livingston and his backers have a more intriguing scenario in mind: Gingrich, they surmise, will step down next year to pursue the presidency in 2000.

If that happens, and it's quite an if, Livingston plans to be ready with all the votes he needs. To that end, he huddles weekly with a core group of supporters in a nondescript conference room in the Capitol. And again, California Republicans play a key role--those at the table have included Reps. Jerry Lewis of Redlands, Ron Packard of Oceanside and Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of Santa Clarita.

So visible have been Californians in the Livingston effort that word has begun to spread that they have been promised top spots in a Livingston administration. This rumor became so persistent that Livingston felt compelled to shoot it down at a meeting with Lewis--dean of the state's House Republicans--at his side.

Still, Livingston's Golden State supporters talk openly about potential spoils.

They envision Lewis, now the fifth-ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, as possibly becoming chairman, or at least presiding over the key subcommittee that handles military financing. They also see top jobs for David Dreier of San Dimas, Christopher Cox of Newport Beach and William M. Thomas of Bakersfield, among others.

With all his early scheming, Livingston's ascension may seem a fait accompli. But it's not. There are others eager to grab the gavel from Gingrich and move into a post that is third in the line of succession to the presidency.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), Gingrich's right-hand man, has adopted a quieter quest for the job. While Livingston campaigns in the open, Armey argues that it is far too early to be jockeying for the speakership. Republicans ought to have their mind on legislative business and holding on to their slim majority, he says.

If Armey is serious about the job, expect to see him one day soon hopping off a plane at LAX doing the very same thing.

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