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Budget Tales: Frustrated Farmers and Crowing Dealmakers

'Old bull' conservative emerges as budget conciliator

ON a cloudless day in Washington, Rep. Robert Livingston, the towering Louisiana Republican, whisks off his sport coat and plops down on an office sofa to talk about the deal. His deal.

The pact took days of hard negotiating with the White House, and it may not satisfy budget hard-liners within his own party. But in exchange for funding the federal government through March 15, Mr. Livingston last week won administration agreement to a $30 billion ''down payment'' that curbs funding for scores of programs.

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For Livingston, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, the deal represents a political metamorphosis. Once considered a far-out conservative, he now finds himself in the unlikely role of conciliator.

In a city often governed by personality, this is a heady development. It reveals not only how far rightward the center has shifted in Congress, but how often it takes a veteran politician, respectful of the system and immune to the grousing of colleagues, to make the compromises that make laws.

''Somebody referred to Bob once as an 'old bull' and he was offended,'' says James Dyer, majority chief of staff for the Appropriations Committee. ''I said, 'Why should you be?' In my way of thinking, the term refers to someone who understands how this place works.''

He bucks shutdown crowd

To Congress watchers, Livingston's emergence as a dealmaker is not surprising. For weeks, he has argued with House leaders that the party has nothing left to gain by shutting down the government.

After President Clinton warned Congress in the State of the Union address to ''never, ever shut the federal government down again,'' Livingston applauded. He was the only Republican to do so.

''By the middle of [last] week, I think most rational people agreed with me,'' Livingston says. ''There's no advantage to be gained from closing government now. I don't think those who are ready to do that have any long-term goal.''

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Affable, approachable, and famously blunt, Livingston is well-liked in Congress. Known as ''Bob,'' his inability to form the words ''no comment'' is almost as legendary as his temper, although aides say he rarely holds a grudge.

After working his way through college as a shipyard welder and earning a law degree from Tulane University in New Orleans, Livingston was elected in 1976 and has since become nearly invincible in his suburban New Orleans district, winning reelection each year with an average of 87 percent.

As an ally of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Livingston vaulted over four senior Republicans to the Appropriations chairmanship in January. From Day 1, he made clear his intention to end the committee's role as a fount of pork.

But Livingston has not threatened the committee's bipartisan ethos. He has drawn barbs from some conservatives for retaining many Democratic staff members, and continuing to work closely, even on the golf course occasionally, with the committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin.

Such comments do not faze Livingston. On the wall in the chairman's office, he displays a photograph of predecessor Silvio Conte, a liberal Massachusetts Democrat whom Livingston refers to, affectionately, as ''my mentor.''

Although some ardent conservatives view his dalliances with Democrats and his recent White House deal as the work of a sellout, there is no sign that Livingston has muted his conservatism.

In his congressional office, one table is packed with military models; a reflection of his Naval service and generous attitude toward defense spending.

A pro-life advocate, Livingston personally knocked family-planning money out of the Labor, Health, and Human Services bill this year, and inserted two nods to the pro-life agenda in the accord.

''I guess it's all in the eye of the beholder,'' he says. ''We have some very rigid people in the freshman class ... to them I might be a moderate, but to most people in America, I'm a pretty strong conservative.''

A Democratic staffer put it more succinctly. ''For people in the Republican conference to say he's too moderate to be a good chairman is a true indication of how wacky those guys must be,'' he says. ''Five or six years ago, Livingston would have been viewed among the most conservative one-fourth of House Republicans. I don't think his ideology has changed, but the makeup of the Republican conference sure has.''

Unlike other panels, Livingston's appropriations committee must produce 13 spending bills every year that account for one-third of the federal budget, a workload that leaves the panel vulnerable to ideological bickering.

Although the House has passed 25 appropriations bills since January, only eight have become law. Livingston has watched helplessly as bills were saddled with controversial ''riders'' that meant their rejection, or a veto by President Clinton. Five bills remain unfinished.

Someone called 911

To be sure, the effort has taken a toll on Livingston. He has engaged in several shouting matches with colleagues, including a scrape with Rep. Mark Neumann (R) of Wisconsin that attracted Capitol police to his door.

Early last week, negotiations with the White House bogged down, colleagues continued to hound him, and his voice gave out. It was, Livingston says, the lowest point over the past year. ''This week has been pretty rugged,'' he says. ''We have 535 prima donnas in Congress and everybody's got an idea of how to do things best.''

One idea Livingston describes, jokingly, as ''particularly brilliant,'' was a proposal by one Republican leader to scrap Livingston's March 15 plan and opt for a ''continuing resolution'' that would fund the government for one week. According to aides, Speaker Gingrich sided with Livingston on Jan. 25.

For six days, he had shuttled between House leaders, rank and file members, and the White House, cobbling together a palatable bill that would satisfy budget-hungry Republicans while giving his committee more time to complete its job. After notching the deal, the gangly chairman suddenly flew from flat to buoyant.

''I'll tell you how I feel in a day or two when I come down,'' Livingston chirped. ''I'm still on a high. Yesterday we kind of regrouped. We showed we can work out our differences with the minority and the administration and pass a major bill that calls for significant cuts. We're having fun.''

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