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New Speaker Blocks Censure at His Peril

House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston. (Reuters file photo)

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  • By Eric Pianin
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, December 14, 1998; Page A14

    By vowing over the weekend to block a vote on censure on the House floor, Speaker-elect Bob Livingston (R-La.) has enhanced prospects that Republicans will hold together to impeach President Clinton but jeopardized his hopes of achieving new political comity.

    Livingston also has placed himself precisely where aides and close advisers insisted he didn't want to be -- at center stage of the impeachment controversy.

    Until now, Livingston has watched from the sidelines as the impeachment drama unfolded with an air of studied detachment, making clear that his fondest hope was to have the messy business resolved before he formally succeeds House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in January.

    Yet by slamming the door on efforts by the White House, Democrats and some moderate Republicans to bring a strongly worded resolution of censure to a vote late this week, Livingston has made impeachment the first test of his nascent speakership and risked alienating Democrats and moderate Republicans whose support he will need down the road.

    With Livingston on board, House GOP leaders voiced confidence yesterday that the tide was turning against Clinton on impeachment and that they would prevent a censure resolution from reaching the floor late this week. "I feel very confident that the Republican leadership will not want to bring something that's unconstitutional to the floor of the House," House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

    But if Democrats and moderate Republicans somehow manage to achieve a rules change to allow such a vote, it would be a humiliating repudiation of Livingston and his top lieutenants -- regardless of the outcome. "This will be the first big test since Livingston effectively became speaker of whether we will hold together our narrow majority," Vin Weber, a Republican strategist and former House member, said yesterday.

    Regardless of the outcome, Livingston has already squandered much of the goodwill he has built up with the Democrats. The New Orleans Republican had promised a new era of cooperation with the Democrats, after years of divisiveness under Gingrich, and had counted on some conservative Democratic support for an ambitious agenda of Social Security reform, tax cuts and education initiatives.

    But that was before he announced at an impromptu news conference in Louisiana on Saturday, after the completion of the House Judiciary Committee's work, that he strongly supported impeachment and that censure was not envisioned by the framers of the Constitution.

    "Censure is out of the realm of responsibility of the House of Representatives," Livingston said. "We have a constitutional responsibility to charge or not charge, impeach or not impeach."

    In the highly charged political atmosphere of impeachment, Democrats say that denial of a floor vote on censure would poison relations between the two parties and likely trigger renewed warfare. House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) warned late last week, before Livingston's decision, that the political consequences of the Republicans denying a vote on censure would be "quite grave."

    "This just frays the ability of both parties to get along and reach reasonable solutions to proceed," Bonior said in an interview. "This will be a very difficult Congress for Livingston in any case" because of the Republicans' slim majority in the House.

    House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said yesterday on "Meet the Press": "I cannot believe -- I don't want to bring myself to believe -- that the leadership in the House is not going to allow the members to vote their very deeply held feelings on this very important issue."

    Appearing yesterday on CBS's "Face the Nation," White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta also complained that "just three weeks ago Mr. Livingston said people ought to be able to vote the option of their choice."

    "I think, if we look back, this process has been partisan from the beginning, and it appears that it's going to be partisan at the end," Podesta said.

    Mark C. Corrallo, Livingston's spokesman, said that the incoming speaker "knows he's in for a difficult ride regardless" of whether he satisfies Democrats and moderate Republicans. "Democrats want the House back, period," Corrallo said. "They're not going to play ball unless they have to."

    The Judiciary Committee's historic votes against Clinton, strongly influenced by Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) and other conservative Republicans, have left the House seriously divided along party lines. Until this past weekend, Livingston was seen as the only Republican with the standing to broker a compromise with the White House and Democratic leaders over the censure issue.

    But since wresting control of the House last month after the Republicans' dismal showing in the elections and Gingrich's decision to step aside, Livingston has largely deferred to DeLay and other conservatives who adamantly oppose giving Democrats and moderate Republicans an alternative to impeachment.

    Aides and friends stressed that Livingston was eager to avoid being tainted by an impeachment controversy begun under Gingrich. "This is not where he wants to start his speakership," said one associate. An aide said, "He's not going to poison the well either way."

    Livingston has busied himself with preparing for the new Congress, working with the newly elected leadership team on committee assignments and next year's legislative agenda, and even writing a letter to the president complaining about White House plans for emergency spending that the speaker-to-be considers excessive.

    When Gingrich decided against presiding over the lame-duck session of the House this week that will take up the articles of impeachment, Livingston wanted nothing to do with it, and a much more junior Republican, Rep. Ray LaHood (Ill.), was picked for the sensitive assignment.

    By contrast, DeLay, the third-ranking House Republican and the president's archenemy on Capitol Hill, eagerly assumed the role of point man on impeachment. Even after many in the White House and on Capitol Hill assumed the impeachment drive was dead, because of the Republicans' poor showing in the elections and polls showing that most Americans opposed impeachment, DeLay and his network of deputy whips kept the heat on.

    Some mistakenly perceived Livingston, the outgoing chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a onetime federal prosecutor, as a reluctant new field general who busily mapped out future campaigns in his tent while his troops were marching blindly into battle.

    But Livingston surprised even members of his staff by the speed with which he announced his decision -- and issued a letter outlining his arguments against censure -- upon completion of the Judiciary Committee's deliberations. Weber said that Livingston, who formally takes charge in early January, really had no choice but to step in and make the decision on censure in the temporary power vacuum created by Gingrich's abrupt departure.

    "He had to step up to the plate on that," Weber said. "He had to settle the censure issue himself. I don't think he could just let the Rules Committee decide; it had to be a decision on the top."

    Though he cloaked his decision to oppose censure in constitutional terms, Livingston had to make a cold political calculation as well -- to side with the conservative Republicans, who were most responsible for elevating him to speaker, over his Democratic adversaries.

    Thomas Mann, a government affairs expert at the Brookings Institution, said Livingston is struggling to come to grips with a series of unpleasant choices. "I presume for at least the time being he is banking on not having to be put in the position to take action that would certainly anger conservatives," Mann said. "He figures he will be angering them plenty in the [upcoming] 106th Congress as it is."

    Staff writer Thomas B. Edsall contributed to this report.

    © Copyright The Washington Post Company

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