House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's stunning decision to drop out of the race to become the next speaker left Republicans in disarray Thursday, threatening to deepen long-standing fractures in the party just as Congress faces a string of fiscal and legislative deadlines.
The California Republican, who had failed to win over GOP conservatives, said he stepped aside after concluding that he would be unable to unite the party after current Speaker John. A. Boehner steps down.
"We're servants. We should put this conference first," McCarthy said Thursday. "If we are going to unite and be strong, we need a new face.''
Party officials abruptly canceled plans for Thursday's nomination vote, which McCarthy was expected to easily win. A scheduled Oct. 29 floor vote for speaker – where McCarthy's chances were far less certain – remained in doubt.
Lawmakers had just settled in for a long lunch session Thursday over barbecue sandwiches when McCarthy stood up and shocked his peers by announcing that he wasn't the right candidate at this moment for the speaker's job.
"He simply said that he didn't want it to be divisive and when it came to running for speaker, he's not the guy," said Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana, member of the influential conservative House Freedom Caucus, which played a role in forcing out Boehner and opposing McCarthy's bid.
McCarthy's bid for the post was hurt by a high-profile TV stumble in which he appeared to suggest that the GOP-led House investigation of the 2012 Benghazi attack was partly aimed at weakening Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton. Critics capitalized on the remark.
"That wasn't helpful," McCarthy said Thursday at a news conference. "I could have said it much better."
He said that his decision was unrelated to a letter sent Tuesday by Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) to the chair of the Republican Conference, calling for the withdrawal of any leadership candidate who had committed "misdeeds" that might "embarrass himself, the Republican Conference and the House of Representatives." It did not mention McCarthy or specify the misdeeds he was referring to.
Instead, McCarthy, who was joined at Thursday's meeting by his wife and two children, indicated he did not want to squeak by in getting the job. Many conservative House members have expressed concern that they would be hard-pressed to explain to voters in their districts why they had supported McCarthy, who was seen as too closely aligned with the current GOP leadership.
"Our voters are saying they want a newcomer," Rep. Curt Clawson (R-Fla.). "This is not a moment for promotion from within."
Over the weekend, McCarthy broached the possibility of dropping out with his close advisers and family, according to those familiar with the private discussions. He knew that making up the shortfall to reach the 218-majority vote needed to win on Oct. 29 would likely result in a long and divisive House floor fight.
The scene at Thursday's meeting was chaotic, as some lawmakers cried and others simply rushed off, stunned to find the House Republican majority – the biggest in generations – snared by another internal crisis. It came fewer than two weeks after Boehner's own sudden resignation announcement.
McCarthy's withdrawal averts a nasty leadership fight, but it leaves unanswered the question of who might step in to unite the party. With no road map in sight and no apparent front-runner for leadership, Boehner said Thursday that he would remain speaker until the House elects his replacement.
"I'm confident we will elect a new speaker in the coming weeks," Boehner said.
With Congress in recess next week, another round of nomination voting is not expected until the week of Oct. 19 at the earliest.
McCarthy's fall capped his swift rise in the GOP House leadership. The former sandwich shop owner from Bakersfield was first elected to the House in 2006.
But it also showed the increasing power of a new generation conservative Republicans – many of whom McCarthy recruited for Congress.
That powerful, back-bench block of conservatives moved against McCarthy, worried that he would continue to run the House in the same manner as Boehner.
Late Wednesday, the Freedom Caucus, which could control 40 to 50 votes, threw its support to Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida, one of its own members, who nonetheless has little chance of broader success. The newcomer won 12 votes when he challenged Boehner for speaker this year.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, another candidate who made a last-minute play to run as an alternative to McCarthy, suffered a setback when his campaign was panned by the conservatives, leaving him without a base of support. On Thursday, Chaffetz said the party needs to elect someone who will stand up to President Obama. "I believe it is time for a fresh start,'' Chaffetz told reporters. "That's the whole genesis of my campaign."
If McCarthy had stayed in the race, conservatives were preparing a list of demands that he would have been expected to meet over the next three weeks in exchange for their support. Among other things, tea party-aligned groups wanted him to change House rules to prevent the next speaker from stacking committees with his or her allies. Some also were pushing to clear the way for one of their own to assume the No. 2 post as Majority Leader.
McCarthy is planning to keep his current job as Majority Leader.
Faced with a leadership vacuum, some Republicans are hoping to recruit Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the former GOP vice presidential candidate. But Ryan has repeatedly said he is not interested.
"Kevin McCarthy is the best person to lead the House, and so I'm disappointed in this decision," Ryan said in a statement Thursday. "Now it is important that we, as a conference, take time to deliberate and seek new candidates for the speakership. While I am grateful for the encouragement I've received, I will not be a candidate. I continue to believe I can best serve the country and this conference as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee."
Leaders of the Freedom Caucus planned to regroup later Thursday to assess their options. Many conservatives said they would not necessarily stick with Webster and that all options are open as they try to choose a leader.
"You could start talking about a caretaker, you could start talking about somebody in the center who would be acceptable to both sides," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, who is seen as a leader of the Freedom Caucus faction.
More moderate Republicans, though, said it was time for deep soul-searching in the GOP to decide whether the party wants to continue allowing a minority of its most conservative members to have such power.
Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, who was backing McCarthy, said he warned Republicans that "those who wanted to take down John Boehner will frag the next guy and that's what we saw just happened .... I'm not going to support anyone running for speaker who is going to appease the rejectionist wing of this party."
The next speaker's challenge will be "simply to unite a divided Republican caucus," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said.
"There is a minority group of conservative Republican politicians that places their own extreme ideology ahead of everything else, and certainly ahead of effective governance of the country — but also as of today, ahead of the effective governance of the House Republican caucus," Earnest said.
Someone will have to step forward to either "tame the forces of that small but vocal group of extreme ideologues or buck up the mainstream, or at least more mainstream, majority within the House Republican conference," Earnest said.
The confusion threatened to stall progress on other congressional action, including an upcoming Nov. 5 deadline to raise the debt limit, renewal of an expiring highway program and budget negotiations.
Boehner has pledged to tackle some items before stepping down, but that is only likely to further infuriate the right flank which is loathe to compromise. By December, the federal government risks another shutdown if Congress fails to approve funding to keep agencies open.
Democrats called on Republican leaders to act quickly on the debt ceiling. "Republican chaos is likely to get worse before it gets better but the economic livelihood of the American people should not be threatened as a result of Republicans' inability to govern," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement.
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