WASHINGTON — With no warning, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy withdrew Thursday from the contest for speaker of the U.S. House, shocking fellow Republicans just before voting was to begin and plunging Congress into chaos.
Lawmakers said they were thunderstruck and in disbelief following McCarthy’s announcement, which came moments after they had shown up for an election nearly certain to end with McCarthy as their pick. A mere two weeks ago outgoing Speaker John Boehner announced his plans to resign under conservative pressure, also without warning and stunning to all.
Boehner, who planned to leave Oct. 30, said in a statement that he would stay on “until the House votes to elect a new speaker.”
McCarthy said, “Over the last week it has become clear to me that our conference is deeply divided and needs to unite behind one leader. I have always put this conference ahead of myself. Therefore I am withdrawing my candidacy for speaker of the House.”
Speaking to reporters, McCarthy said: “For us to unite, we probably need a fresh face.” He said he didn’t want to win by eking out victory because the House needs a speaker with strong GOP support. McCarthy was being opposed by a small but determined bloc of hardline conservatives.
McCarthy said he would stay on as majority leader. The speaker’s election was postponed, as may be the scheduled Oct. 29 vote for speaker by the full House, Democrats as well as Republicans.
What happens next is unknown. McCarthy was by far the heavy favorite to replace Boehner. Congress is facing major budget deadlines and fiscal decisions.
At the White House, presidential spokesman Josh Earnest said it would be easy for Democrats to poke fun at the Republicans’ troubles if not for the serious issues Congress faces. He said the next speaker will have to tame a small but vocal group of lawmakers with a strong ideological bent or find a way to “buck up” more mainstream House Republicans.
The lawmaker most widely seen as a potential speaker in McCarthy’s place immediately ruled it out.
“Kevin McCarthy is the best person to lead the House, and so I’m disappointed in this decision,” said Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the former vice presidential nominee who now chairs the Ways and Means Committee. “While I am grateful for the encouragement I’ve received, I will not be a candidate.
One leadership ally, Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, said McCarthy “didn’t see a path to 218” — the number of votes needed to prevail on the House floor. McCarthy faced opposition from a bloc of 30-plus hardline conservative lawmakers who didn’t command the numbers to block him in Thursday’s secret-ballot elections, but might have prevented him from winning a floor vote later on.
There was talk among some lawmakers of elevating a “caretaker” speaker who could serve with consensus support at least for the short term.
Rank-and-file lawmakers seemed unsure how to react or what to say as they milled around the lobby of the Longworth Office Building where they had gathered to eat barbecue and then — they thought — vote for a new speaker. Instead the meeting was adjourned moments after it began with McCarthy making his jaw-dropping announcement as his wife and kids looked on.
“Disbelief, from the surprise announcement by Boehner to the quick nature of this election to it now being postponed — it’s uncertainty on top of uncertainty,” said freshman Rep. Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania. “I’ve been here nine months, I’ve never seen anything like this. I’d bet you most other members who have been here 20 or 30 years would say the same thing.”
“He was making his plea this morning for speaker and this afternoon he’s out of the race. What happened in those four hours, I don’t know,” said Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana.
Several Republicans were crying after McCarthy’s announcement, lawmakers at the meeting said.
The other two announced Republican candidates for speaker — Reps. Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Daniel Webster of Florida — lack widespread support in the House GOP, although Webster has the backing of the hardline House Freedom Caucus.
Thursday’s secret ballot — even if it had proceeded as expected — still would have been merely an early skirmish in the chaotic battle to lead the House. It was to have been followed by the vote in the full House where the Freedom Caucus could have blocked McCarthy’s ascent.
McCarthy’s candidacy for speaker had gotten off to a rough start with a gaffe when he suggested the House’s Benghazi committee was set up to drive down Hillary Rodham Clinton’s poll numbers, rather than search for the truth about the 2012 attacks in Libya that killed four Americans. He was roundly criticized and quickly backtracked, but the flub dogged him, giving an opening for Chaffetz to get into the race.
“That wasn’t helpful. I could have said it much better,” McCarthy told reporters.
But he brushed off a suggestion that his decision had anything to do with a letter circulated earlier this week by Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., asserting that any candidate for leadership should withdraw from contention “if there are any misdeeds he has committed since joining Congress that will embarrass himself, the Republican Conference and the House of Representatives if they become public.”
Jones has said the letter wasn’t directed at anyone in particular. Asked whether it played a role in his decision McCarthy said: “Nah.”
But the episode evoked memories of the shocking announcement in December, 1998, when Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., astonished Washington by suddenly dropping his bid to replace Newt Gingrich as speaker. Livingston was the heavy favorite, but had been dogged by allegations — promoted by Hustler Publisher Larry Flynt — that he had been unfaithful to his wife.
Livingston’s stunning announcement came as the House was debating President Clinton’s impeachment with its roots in Clinton’s own infidelities.
With Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas too radioactive as the architect of Clinton’s impeachment, Republicans turned to Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who was DeLay’s chief deputy. Hastert proved to be a stabilizing force and served as speaker for eight years until Republicans lost their House majority in 2006. Hastert himself is now under indictment for financial improprieties related to alleged past misconduct.
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