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LIVINGSTON GIVES THE HOUSE A LITTLE LIFE

It is not exactly true, although often said, that the House of Representatives is Sleepy Hollow, with only cobwebs and dust to show. Don't forget the in-house contest between GOP leader Dick Armey and Appropriations Chairman Bob Livingston, who both wish to be speaker, but only if incumbent Newt Gingrich packs it in to run for president.

Livingston and Armey are ideological twins, identically anti-abortion and against government spending except for defense. Stylistically, they are worlds apart. Armey is a bulky Texas ex-professor, who wears cowboy boots and quotes from country-western songs. Livingston, an ex-prosecutor and 6-foot-7 non-flamboyant Louisianan, looks more like the bank president of Republican stereotype. His manner is starchy and dry.

If they had to vote now, Republicans would be cats on a hot tin roof. Armey and Livingston are both kings of clout. As majority leader, Armey has a great deal to say about the House schedule, and therefore its agenda. Anyone sweating a bill to the floor would not want to offend Armey. At the same time, Livingston is not someone you would wish to displease. You would not put in jeopardy money your state needs.

What gives the race its life is Livingston's aggressiveness. He has a campaign operation in full swing. He has strategy committees and shadow fund-raising operations. He indefatigably coaxes and argues in his quest. One ardent ally, Rep. Ron Packard, R-Calif., urges his candidate to press on. "Those who say it's too early don't understand that Bob wants it wrapped up by the time Newt announces the vacancy. He's an unrepentant conservative and he deserves to succeed Newt."

In last week's Roll Call newspaper, Livingston claimed 77 hard votes of the 114 he needs. His press secretary, Mark Corallo, says the total is more like 100, about the number Gingrich had in his pocket at a comparable time in his insurgency.

Members wishing to be neutral say the contest is too hypothetical to discuss and several, including Gingrich, have urged Livingston to cool it. Armey, at his weekly press briefing, acted as if a query about the situation was untimely, if not unseemly. Asked if he believed Livingston's claims, he looked pained. His colleagues are not interested, he said. Rather, they share his concern for the children of the District of Columbia who would benefit from passage of a GOP education bill.

One source of Livingston's strength is the famous freshman Republicans, a collection of hardheads and smoldering passions who have the mania for conspiracy usually associated with the Borgia family. They seethe still about last summer, when they plotted to oust Gingrich. Armey and the other members of the leadership treacherously joined them. Armey was under the impression he was the rebels' choice to succeed Gingrich. When he discovered he was not, he informed on the plotters and told the speaker he was saving him. But it was Livingston who rallied the chairmen to rescue Gingrich from the clutches of the conspirators. Conference Chairman Bill Paxon owned up to his betrayal, and so did Majority Whip Tom DeLay. But Armey never confessed. With the freshmen, Livingston is savior, Armey traitor.

Livingston is popular with Democrats, which is surprising when you see him preside over the Appropriations Committee markup. The Republicans are engaged in grinding the president to powder.

Democrats think Armey as speaker "would be better for us" -- his TV presence is not fetching -- but they prefer to deal with Livingston. "He is a man of the House," says Rep. David Obey, ranking Democrat on Appropriations. "He respects the institution." Livingston grew up in a fatherless household; his mother struggled and worked in a New Orleans shipyard office to bring up her children, and he is sensitive to equal pay and allied subjects.

Despite the correctness of his demeanor, the chairman has a fearful temper. Obey, whose temper is famous, is the expert witness. "He makes me look like a pussycat; he is a door-slammer, a furniture-thrower and a chest-poker. Like me, he's over it in five minutes and apologizing." He's the source of the little life there is on Capitol Hill these days.

Universal Press Syndicate

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