WASHINGTON -- In an announcement that brought a raucous House to a stunned silence, Rep. Robert L. Livingston told his colleagues yesterday that he will not accept the House speakership and will instead quit Congress next year after his disclosure of adulterous affairs.
In the midst of the impeachment debate, Livingston became the latest casualty of a political conflagration sparked by the Republican-led drive to oust President Clinton over his efforts to conceal his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
The leading candidate to become the next speaker is little-known Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, a gruff and respected conservative lawmaker who headed the Republican task force on managed health care reform last year.
Hastert is well-regarded by many of his more moderate peers. But he is also considered a close ally of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, who is one of the ideological architects of the impeachment drive against Clinton.
Last week, Livingston felt forced to acknowledge several extramarital affairs after a Washington newspaper, Roll Call, disclosed the relationships on its Web site. Since then, some conservatives whose votes Livingston would need to be elected speaker by the full House in January had raised doubts about his fitness for the post.
In a passionate floor speech a few hours before the vote on the impeachment resolutions, the 55-year-old Louisiana Republican first called on Clinton to resign, sparking some Democrats to pound tables and shout back, "You resign! You resign!"
To their shock, he did just that, proclaiming that he was setting an example the president should follow.
"I was prepared to lead our narrow majority as speaker, and I believe I had it in me to do a fine job," Livingston said. "But I cannot do that job or be the kind of leader that I would like to be under current circumstances."
An audible gasp rose from the packed House. Ashen-faced Republicans slumped in their chairs. As Livingston left the House floor, he shook hands warmly with Gingrich, the potent political figure whom only a month ago Livingston had helped drive from power. "From one short-term speaker to another," Livingston chuckled.
The announcement sparked a flurry of impromptu meetings by Republican members on the House floor and throughout the Capitol. After a hastily scheduled meeting of House Republicans, the party's leaders emerged to announce that they would throw their support to Hastert.
"My sense of duty now calls me to serve our free nation by seeking a position of great responsibility -- that of the speaker of the United States House of Representatives," Hastert declared last evening. "It is a calling that I have not sought. However, it is a duty that I cannot ignore."
Other possible candidates for speaker were also mentioned by peers yesterday: Reps. Christopher Cox and David Dreier of California, and Hyde, the Republican standard-bearer during the impeachment process.
Livingston's decision, a surprise even to most Republicans, came just a few hours before the House voted to impeach Clinton for misdeeds stemming from an improper sexual
relationship of his own.
Republicans quickly took up Livingston's call for Clinton to resign. In a speech that followed Livingston's, House Majority Leader Dick Armey paid tribute to the Louisianan, saying: "You set before us today an example that breaks our heart, that principle comes before person."
Said California Rep. Tom Campbell: "If you cannot trust our leaders, you cannot govern. Bob Livingston has led by example."
But Democrats quickly gained their voices as well, imploring Livingston to reconsider and saying the waves of sexual recriminations must end -- including recriminations against the president.
"No one standing in this House today can pass this puritanical test of leadership," said House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt. "We need to stop destroying imperfect people."
President Clinton called on Livingston to reconsider.
In February, Livingston had considered resigning from Congress after three years as chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
But he decided to stay on. And after the Republicans' dismal results in the November elections, Livingston formally challenged Gingrich for the speakership. Gingrich then announced his own resignation.
Some Republicans said Livingston's announcement yesterday might have been less selfless than Republican leaders allowed. Rep. John A. Boehner, an outgoing House Republican leader from Ohio, hinted that Livingston's infidelities had begun undercutting his support among conservatives.
Larry Flynt, the Hustler magazine publisher who has been investigating the sex lives of Republican lawmakers, has promised more revelations about Livingston that he said came from four women.
And some conservative members were annoyed that Livingston had not disclosed his extramarital affairs to House Republicans before he became speaker-designate.
"It was certainly not irrelevant," said conservative Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Maryland's 6th District. The Democrats, Bartlett said, "would have had a new whipping boy that the president could hide behind."
With a razor-thin, six-vote majority next year, Livingston could not risk running for speaker in January against Gephardt and a united Democratic opposition.
Hastert's previous efforts to break into the top ranks of Republican leadership ended as something of a misadventure: After the November elections, he asked Armey for release from a promise to support him because he wanted to seek the job himself. Armey refused.
Yesterday, Armey joined with DeLay to try to promote Hastert to a starring role.
Pub Date: 12/20/98