WASHINGTON – House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy suddenly withdrew from the contest for speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday, shocking colleagues just before they were to vote and producing ever-deeper chaos for the Republican controlled Congress.
In a closed-door meeting, House Republicans were prepared to nominate him, but instead listened in disbelief as McCarthy took himself out of the running for speaker — the top position in Congress and the second in line of succession to the president.
A small but determined bloc of hardline conservatives had announced they were opposing the more moderate McCarthy, and they commanded enough votes to block him on the floor, spurring the silver-haired Californian to back out.
Republicans, despite having control of both chambers of Congress — including a huge majority in the House — have been hampered by infighting.
The same lawmakers that opposed McCarthy — members of the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus — pushed outgoing Speaker John Boehner to announce his resignation just two weeks ago by threatening a floor vote on his speakership. Some of them cheered the announcement by Boehner’s No. 2.
“This is unprecedented to have a small group, a tiny minority, hijack the party and blackmail the House,” said Rep. Peter King of New York.
One immediate impact of McCarthy’s decision might be to prolong Boehner’s tenure. Boehner, who had intended to leave Oct. 30, said he would stay on “until the House votes to elect a new speaker.”
The man most widely seen as a potential speaker in McCarthy’s place immediately ruled it out.
“While I am grateful for the encouragement I’ve received, I will not be a candidate,” said Rep. Paul Ryan, the former vice-presidential nominee who now chairs the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. But Ryan was under intense pressure to reconsider, including from Boehner and McCarthy himself.
Establishment-minded Republicans expressed bitter frustration at the sway of the Freedom Caucus at a time when Republicans command their largest House majority in 80 years. And stark uncertainty lies ahead as lawmakers question how any candidate backed by mainstream Republicans will be able to prevail in the House.
It all comes with Congress in desperate need of steady leadership as major fiscal and budgetary deadlines loom, starting with the need to raise the government’s debt limit to avoid a market-shattering default in a month’s time.
McCarthy might have been able to eke out a win, but he said that’s not how he wanted to become speaker. It’s now unknown when the House Republican election will occur, and in doubt as to whether a scheduled Oct. 29 floor vote by both Democrats and Republicans will go forward.
McCarthy’s two announced Republican rivals for speaker — Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Daniel Webster — lack widespread support among House Republicans, although Webster has the backing of the Freedom Caucus, whose members dismissed McCarthy as a clone of Boehner.
Numerous other names began to surface of possible candidates, and lawmakers were openly discussing the possibility of elevating a “caretaker” speaker to serve for a short time.