It was that rarest of spectacles: politicians at a loss for words.
As Republicans left their conference meeting shortly after noon Thursday, with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy bowing out of the race for the speakership, his party colleagues had no talking points, no direction on what was next. “At least with Gingrich, Livingston, Hastert, there was some degree of prediction as to what would come next. It’s gone to the point of no one having a clue as to what’s going to come next,” Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said.
Sanford was referring to the last time a presumptive speaker-in-waiting abruptly resigned . After the 1998 elections, when Republicans lost seats in the House, Newt Gingrich announced he would resign the speakership and his Georgia seat. Rep. Bob Livingston of Louisiana, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, quickly emerged as the consensus pick to replace Gingrich.
McCarthy Drops Out of Race for Speaker
But Livingston shocked his colleagues and nation when he announced on Dec. 19, 1998 — in the middle of House debate over whether to impeach President Bill Clinton — that he would not be ascending to the speakership and would also be resigning his House seat.
The House shortly after passed the articles of impeachment against Clinton. But with Gingrich and Livingston both on their way out, the chamber still needed a top leader. Republicans quickly coalesced around Rep. J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., the chief deputy whip under Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and within a few short hours secured enough GOP votes to become the speaker-in-waiting.
It was quick and dirty. According to Roll Call's Dec. 21, 1998 edition, the Hastert vote counters had it wrapped up before the evening newscasts. "Five hours to the minute and we have it," one of Hastert's vote counters told Roll Call, adding, "That's got to be a record, we started at 1:30 and wrapped it up 6:30."
Compare that to the chaos that pervaded the House on Thursday. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the leader of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus who spearheaded opposition to McCarthy and threw his group's weight behind Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla., said had no interest in running for speaker . When asked if the Freedom Caucus would still support Webster for speaker, he said, “Not sure.”
Sanford, who served in the House in 1998 before serving as governor and then returning to the chamber in 2013 in a special election, said either Trey Gowdy of South Carolina or Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin would win if they wanted to. But both have said they are not interested.
"Either one of them I think could quickly walk away with an election if they were to throw their hat in the ring and I suspect neither of them will,” Sanford said.
Darrell Issa, R-Calif., predicted more candidates would get in. “I think there will be a broader field. Let’s see,” he said.
There wasn't even agreement on how long a next speaker would serve, whether through the rest of the 114th Congress or in some nebulous interim role.
Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., indicated an interim speaker position could last until the end of the year or even longer.
That was a nonstarter with some members. "I don’t prefer to go the caretaker route," said Devin Nunes, R-Calif., a close ally of outgoing Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and an advocate of either McCarthy or Ryan as the top guy.
“You have to run the institution. You’re third in line to the presidency and you have to do all of the things necessary for our campaign arm, so that takes somebody who’s going to be on the road 200 days a year,” Nunes said. Asked if Ryan could be peer pressured into running for speaker, Nunes said, “I don’t know. I don’t know who else is out there."
But perhaps most common was the reaction to questions by Chief Deputy Whip Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., who had thrown his hat into the ring to run for majority whip, assuming there was an opening after the top leadership elections shook out.
Leaving Boehner's office shortly after 2 p.m. Thursday, McHenry did not answer any reporter questions, just shaking his head as he walked toward the floor.
Steven T. Dennis, Lindsey McPherson, Katherine Tully-McManus and Bridget Bowman contributed to this report .
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