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Past Is Prologue in the Republican Speaker Fight

The House speaker had been unceremoniously dumped by colleagues unhappy with his performance and overly optimistic political predictions. Those who would typically be considered next in line had made too many enemies to be able to secure the necessary numbers to take his place. The House was in utter chaos as bombs fell in the Middle East.

Today’s relentless Republican turmoil over the House speakership has striking parallels to the tumult of 1998, when House G.O.P. lawmakers were also feuding over who would lead them at a crucial period.

Then as now, personal vendettas and warring factions drove an extraordinary internal party fight that threw the House into chaos. The saga had multiple twists and turns as Republicans cycled through would-be speakers in rapid succession — just as the G.O.P. did this week. And in the end, they settled on a little-known congressman as a compromise choice.

It’s not clear how the current speaker drama will end; Republicans left Washington on Friday after nominating their second candidate for speaker of the week, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, with plans to return on Tuesday for a vote but no certainty that he could be elected.

Back in 1998, Republicans moved swiftly to fill their power vacuum in just one day, unlike the present situation, where they have let unrest fester for more than a week while struggling to overcome deep internal divisions and anoint a new leader.

“That was pretty chaotic,” said Representative Harold Rogers, the Kentucky Republican who was already a veteran lawmaker at the time and is now the dean of the House as its longest-serving member. “But it didn’t last very long.”

Both dramas began when a Republican speaker lost the faith of some key colleagues. Hard-right Republicans precipitated their party’s current crisis by forcing out Representative Kevin McCarthy of California from the speaker post as punishment for working with Democrats to avert a government shutdown. Twenty-five years ago, Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican whose closest allies were turning on him, announced he would not run again for speaker.

Mr. Gingrich, whose scorched-earth tactics had returned Republicans to the majority in 1995 after four decades in the minority wilderness, was finally burned himself after predicting Republican gains in that November’s elections, only to lose seats.

Representative Richard K. Armey of Texas, who held the same majority leader position then as Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana does today, was a potential replacement, as was Representative Tom DeLay, the powerful No. 3 Republican whip who was also from Texas. But both had political baggage likely to keep them from the top job, and Mr. Armey faced a fight just to remain in the No. 2 slot.

Neither even bothered going through the motions of seeking their party’s nomination, as Mr. Scalise did successfully on Wednesday — only to discover quickly that he lacked the support to be elected, leading to his abrupt withdrawal.

“Both of them were toxic, and they knew it,” Fred Upton, the recently retired moderate Republican from Michigan who was in the House at the time, said of Mr. Armey and Mr. DeLay.

Sensing an opportunity, Robert Livingston, an ambitious Louisiana Republican who commanded a solid bloc of supporters as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, jumped into the speaker’s race and cleared the field. He won the Republican nomination without opposition in mid-November.

Mr. Livingston went about setting up his new leadership operation as Republicans plunged ahead with the impeachment of President Bill Clinton growing out of his relationship with a White House intern. Many Republicans believed the impeachment push had cost them in the just-concluded election, but pursuing Mr. Clinton was a priority of Mr. DeLay, whose nickname was the Hammer, and he was not one to be deterred.

Then Saturday, Dec. 19, arrived, with the House set to consider articles of impeachment even as Mr. Clinton had ordered airstrikes against Iraq over suspected weapons violations — an action that Republicans accused him of taking to stave off impeachment.

Mr. Livingston, who had not yet assumed the speakership but was playing a leadership role, rose on the floor to urge Mr. Clinton to resign and spare the nation a divisive impeachment fight. But Mr. Livingston himself had acknowledged extramarital affairs a few days earlier to his colleagues. Democrats began shouting “no, no, no” as he spoke.

“You resign,” shouted Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California. “You resign.”

To the amazement of everyone present, Mr. Livingston did just that, saying that he would set an example for the president and that he would not run for speaker. The House was stunned as lawmakers absorbed the news — similar to the surreal atmosphere last week when it became clear that Mr. McCarthy would be removed as speaker after hard-right Republicans moved to oust him and eight of them joined Democrats in pushing through a motion to vacate the chair.

Dennis Hastert became the longest-serving Republican speaker in history before Democrats won the House back in 2006. He was later convicted of paying to cover up sexual abuse.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

A mad scramble was on to identify a new speaker candidate. Names of prominent and seasoned House Republicans were bandied about, but Mr. DeLay, a singular force in the chamber, was not about to accept one of them as a potential rival.

He turned to a fairly innocuous Illinois Republican who had watched Mr. Livingston from the back row of the House, J. Dennis Hastert, a former wrestling coach who served as Mr. DeLay’s chief deputy and would not be a threat to usurp much of his influence. Mr. DeLay and others told Mr. Hastert that he needed to step up to unify Republicans.

By the end of the day, Republicans had approved articles of impeachment against Mr. Clinton and coalesced around Mr. Hastert as the next speaker — a rapid resolution that Mr. Upton noted was lacking in the present speaker drama. He said Republicans should have moved much more quickly after the vote to depose Mr. McCarthy to install someone rather than recessing for the week.

“It would have been over and done with,” Mr. Upton said.

Mr. Hastert went on to be the longest-serving Republican speaker in history before Democrats won the House back in 2006. But his public career ended in disgrace when he was convicted and sentenced to 15 months in federal prison in 2016 for paying to cover up admitted sexual abuse of young wrestlers committed long before he rose to surprising power in Congress.

Mr. DeLay, his patron, was forced from Congress by ethics issues but ultimately had his conviction on campaign finance violations thrown out of court. Mr. Livingston went on to become a successful Washington lobbyist. Mr. Clinton was acquitted by the Senate. Mr. Gingrich remains a voice in G.O.P. politics. And Republicans still struggle with speaker issues.

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