Livingston Pledges to Correct Course
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 19, 1998; Page A31
House Republicans cheered yesterday as House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (La.) pledged to steer the GOP "Big Ship" back on course after a year of crippling partisanship and election setbacks.
But the New Orleans Republican faces a daunting some say impossible task in trying to bridge the cleft between conservatives and moderates in his own party while reaching out to wary Democrats. Indeed, even a shift to a less confrontational leadership style, as Livingston is promising, does not rule out the possibility of continued legislative gridlock.
"It's going to be mighty, mighty difficult to govern when you have as narrow a margin as he has," said former House Republican leader Robert H. Michel (Ill.).
With control of the House and the White House at stake in the 2000 election, Livingston could easily find himself in the same fix that led to House Speaker Newt Gingrich's demise whipsawed by conservative activists demanding revolutionary purity and more moderate Republicans and Democrats who sense the pendulum of power swinging back in their direction.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) and other Democratic leaders have said they are willing to cooperate with Livingston and more moderate Republicans, but only to the extent that it advances their own agenda of Social Security and health care reform, education initiatives, campaign finance reform and boosting the minimum wage.
House GOP conservatives, meanwhile, have pledged to grant the new speaker a six-month honeymoon to give him time to demonstrate he can unite the party around a new GOP agenda with broad appeal to voters. But conservatives are leery of Livingston's call for building bridges to the Democrats, and question whether he can satisfy those in his party who are demanding huge tax cuts, strong antiabortion language and changes in the Social Security system that are unacceptable to the White House.
"I don't think it's going to be easy for Bob Livingston to function with a six-vote margin, particularly with the pro-life faction . . . and tax cut advocates," said Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.), a conservative activist.
"The real question is whether he can deal within his own caucus . . . and still survive," added Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.). "The problem will not be the Democrats; the problem will be Republicans."
Livingston contends that the Republican leadership mistakenly gave short shrift to the nuts and bolts of governing and overreached by promoting an unwieldy and impractical agenda. Now he wants to pass the critical budget and spending measures on time and craft a more sharply focused political agenda stressing fiscal restraint, "saving" Social Security, tax relief, missile defense and local accountability for education.
"We've got to talk less and act more," he said during a recent interview. "Teddy Roosevelt described my role. ... I'm going to speak softly and if necessary carry the big stick in order to keep everyone working in the same direction, and not in a lot of different directions."
After anticipating big gains at every level of government in the Nov. 3 election, Republicans lost five House seats and broke even in the Senate. Three days later, Gingrich was forced to step down, and yesterday House Republicans chose Livingston as their leader by acclamation, assuring his election as speaker in January. With Republicans now holding only a 223-to-211 vote majority in the House, with one independent, Livingston is confronted with an extraordinary balancing act.
"On any given issue there is an imminent danger of being outnumbered, and that's true wherever you sit in the chamber," said Nelson Polsby, a University of California-Berkeley political scientist.
Not since 1953, when Republicans controlled the House and Senate by scant margins, has a party attempted to govern with so narrow a majority. Even with Dwight Eisenhower in the White House, the Republicans lost control of the Congress in 1954.
Conservatives had disparaged Gingrich (R-Ga.) because he vacillated between the hard-edged revolutionary they admired and a back-room deal-maker who they thought too often gave in to President Clinton's demands. Some have voiced concern that the more pragmatic Livingston, even with his solid conservative credentials, would give them more of the same.
Shortly after the election, Rep. David M. McIntosh (Ind.), the leader of the House GOP conservative caucus known as the "CATS," dismissed Livingston as a "pork-barrel-style Republican." But Livingston attracted what proved to be key support from Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), a CATS member. "The speaker is responsible for making the place run and making sure the place doesn't implode, and I think Bob Livingston has the skills to do that," Salmon said.
McIntosh softened up after a meeting with Livingston and pledged to work with him to develop a scaled-back agenda that could be passed next year. McIntosh heeded Livingston's warning that if the conservatives continued to war with the leadership, the Republicans could lose their majority in 2000.
But conservatives said there is a limit to their patience. "I think Livingston will have a honeymoon period for the first six months of next year, and it's then he will show his leadership and style," McIntosh said. "Bob understands the key thing is showing we can get some of our Republican initiatives like tax cuts through Congress and have them signed by the president or not signed" to more clearly spell out the differences between the two parties.
Democrats will wait and see how and if the GOP's internal war is resolved. But even though they like Livingston personally, they are not particularly disposed to help him govern, and they intend to advance their agenda any way they can.
Gingrich "did nothing to develop a single relationship with a single Democrat in the House, and our people are very, very glad he's gone," said a senior Democratic leadership aide.
If Livingston cooperates, Democrats say they are prepared to be bipartisan. "There are a lot of things we think we can work together with them on," Gephardt told reporters earlier this week. "And we're going to go a long, long, way to try to interest them in voting on a lot of things that we'd like to get done."
But Democrats said they are also prepared to create their own majority by taking votes from the GOP. "It really depends on the way they want to do it," Gephardt said. "We can put together the majority with moderate Republicans to get things done. And that's what we want to do."
And, if Livingston refuses to allow bills to come to the floor, Democratic leadership sources said the minority can resort to legislative power plays like the "discharge petition" accumulating 218 signatures to force a vote over leadership objections.
The threat of a discharge petition forced Gingrich to allow debate and a vote on campaign finance reform earlier this year; with an even smaller majority, the petition becomes a graver danger for Livingston.
"Anything is possible," grinned Democratic Caucus Chairman Martin Frost (Tex.). "Last time we had an 11-vote difference. A six-vote difference is even newer ground, and we shall see what will happen."
And for Frost and the Democrats, wait-and-see is a no-cost strategy. If Livingston tries but fails to unify his own party, the Democrats benefit from GOP ineffectuality. If Livingston succeeds, it will only be with Democratic help, both in Congress and the White House.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company