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Flamboyant Livingston Out Front in Race for Speaker

Congress: Louisianian was first to announce intentions to replace Gingrich as House leader.


WASHINGTON — As a young criminal prosecutor in New Orleans, Bob Livingston sometimes celebrated his courtroom victories in the watering holes of the French Quarter. But one night he stayed out so late that when he got home, he discovered his wife had left his dinner out on the front stoop.

Peace has long since returned to the Livingston house.

Now it is the people's House that Rep. Livingston apparently has thrown into turmoil. On Friday, he announced plans to campaign to oust Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the man who annointed Livingston as chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee three years ago.

And just hours later, Gingrich, facing mounting criticism from House Republicans, announced his resignation, which seemed to give Livingston the inside track in what may become a spirited contest to succeed the speaker.

A flamboyant Louisianian with a fiery temper, Livingston was the first publicly declared candidate for the speaker's job Friday. The high-stakes quest for the post will have broad and long-term consequences not only for House Republicans but also for the people's agenda.

Livingston, who is seeking to become the third-highest constitutional officer in the nation, is a veteran lawmaker with a black belt in tae kwon do, who once showed up for an appropriations panel meeting with a machete to spotlight his intention to slash the federal budget.

Those who know Livingston say they are not surprised that he seeks to challenge Gingrich.

Something of a political brawler, Livingston has repeatedly jousted with his House GOP colleagues--including other committee chairmen--over spending priorities. During one confrontation with then-Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) in 1995, Livingston and one of Roberts' top aides nearly came to blows.

"He's never shrunk from a challenge," said Quin Hillyer, a longtime Livingston press secretary and now an editorial writer at the Mobile Register in Alabama.

During the December 1995 government shutdown confrontation with the White House, it was Livingston who took to the House floor and delivered a thundering speech in which he shouted: "We will never, never give in . . . . We will stay here until doomsday."

Livingston got a rousing reception from fellow Republicans but also became the face of the GOP intransigence in the budget war that culminated in a partial government shutdown that proved politically damaging to Republicans.

As head of the committee that doles out federal spending, Livingston has been frustrated repeatedly by colleagues who sought to attach policy riders pertaining to social controversies like abortion, environmental policies and labor practices to various appropriation measures.

But Livingston also has used his position to bring home the pork. Over the years, he has steered about $1 billion in shipping contracts to Avondale Industries, a large employer in his suburban New Orleans district where he worked while attending college and law school at Tulane University.

Livingston grew up in modest circumstances and enlisted in the Navy after high school, serving on a naval vessel in the Caribbean during the Cuban missile crisis.

After law school, he became a top trial attorney in Orleans Parish. "He was one of the very best trial lawyers around," recalled one Southern California attorney, who asked not to be named, who worked with Livingston then.

"We used to go watch him in trials and learn. He was like a role model for us," he added.

Livingston, 55, has been married to Bonnie for more than three decades. She, along with one of their four children, stood beside Livingston outside the Capitol as he made his announcement Friday.

Livingston, who in his spare time plays the harmonica and jogs, won a seat in the House in 1977 in a special election.

After the GOP took control of the House in the 1994 elections, Gingrich passed over four more-senior Republicans to name him head of the appropriations committee.

hat appointment was brought up during Livingston's afternoon news conference when a reporter asked: "If your friend Newt Gingrich were here today, would he be saying 'Et tu, Brute?' "

Livingston replied, "Nice question," adding: "I've supported Newt Gingrich for four years. I love him dearly. He's my friend. And I hope he understands that my role in being here is in the best interest of our [House Republican] Conference . . . and in what I believe would be in the best interest of the Congress and of the nation."

In an interview, a former longtime Livingston aide said Friday that too much was being made of Gingrich's role in Livingston's ascension to chairman of the appropriations panel three years ago.

At the time, the aide said, Livingston already had enough commitments from colleagues to be elected GOP conference chairman, a top leadership post.

But Livingston agreed to serve as appropriations chairman because Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was coveting the GOP conference job.

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