In a stunning twist, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has dropped out of the race for House speaker, facing resistance from hardliners in the House Freedom Caucus. Apparently unable to muster enough support from House Republicans to be confident of a win on the House floor later this month — where Democratic votes for speaker would likely go to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — McCarthy made the decision to withdraw his candidacy.
“If we are going to be united and be strong, we need a fresh face to do this,” McCarthy said in a press conference after the news broke.
A vote among House Republicans to select their nominee for speaker had been expected early Thursday afternoon. McCarthy’s withdrawal immediately threw the House into disarray. According to members, McCarthy felt he had the votes for Thursday’s closed-door nomination, but was concerned he would not have the 218 votes when the nomination would be brought to a full House later this month.
McCarthy’s decision to withdraw was especially shocking as, earlier in the morning, he had told the press going into the speaker forum that he felt confident he had the votes to be elected speaker.
The vote for a GOP nominee for speaker has been postponed to a yet-to-be-announced date, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Oh) said in a statement.
“I’m confident we will elect a new Speaker in the coming weeks,” said Boehner, who will stay on as speaker until a new one is elected. “Our conference will work together to ensure we have the strongest team possible as we continue to focus on the American people’s priorities.”
Nevertheless, Republican lawmakers are back to square one in the stand off between the hardliners who have pushed for government shutdowns and the institutionalists, who view the brinkmanship as politically harmful for the party.
“The establishment lost today,” Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS), a member of the Freedom Caucus who was skeptical of McCarthy as speaker, told MSNBC. “We just want someone who is willing to work with conservatives.”
Members speculated about various plans moving forward, including selecting an interim speaker to get through the rest of the term or even reaching out to Democrats to elect a new speaker.
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), a moderate, meanwhile said whoever is elected speaker “should not appease the rejectionists.” He suggested Republicans might have to work with Democrats to settle on a bipartisan candidate.
“Anything is possible,” he said.
Other members reacted on Twitter:
The room was stunned as McCarthy announced he is “not the right one” to lead the conference. At 8am he was at a forum making his pitch.
— Rep. Bill Huizenga (@RepHuizenga) October 8, 2015
Kevin McCarthy has decided to not run for the Speaker of the House. Kevin is my friend and I applaud his putting the country before himself.
— Blake Farenthold (@farenthold) October 8, 2015
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) said during a press conference on Fox News that McCarthy will stay on as majority leader. He added that neither of the other two speaker candidates — Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) — had close to McCarthy’s support, so Boehner has opened the election up for more candidates.
“Kevin McCarthy will be the most important endorsement for whoever ultimately becomes the speaker,” Issa said.
It was not immediately clear what impact McCarthy staying on as majority leader would have in the various leadership races. A fierce race to succeed McCarthy as majority leader was already underway. One of the top candidates to succeed him was Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), who was trying to move up from his position as majority whip, for which yet another open election was underway.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC), a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus, said the group would be meeting to discuss its next move.
“I don’t consider it to be a victory for the Freedom Caucus because we don’t know why he did it,” Mulvaney said, pointing to the damaging admission McCarthy made about the political purpose of the special Benghazi committee. Those comments had badly scarred McCarthy not just with House conservatives but with a broad swath of Republicans in and outside of the House.
However, he called McCarthy’s withdrawal “evidence of the deep divisions in the party that need to be healed.”
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the high-profile chair of the Ways and Means Committee, quickly put out a statement taking his name out of the running.
“Kevin McCarthy was the best person to lead the House, and so I am disappointed in this decision,” the statement said.
The stakes for the GOP’s path forward are particularly high, as in the weeks to come lawmakers face a series of make-or-break deadlines, including raising the debt ceiling by Nov. 5 and funding the government for the next fiscal year by Dec. 11.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) released a statement saying that the “utter chaos” caused by McCarthy’s withdrawal shows the need to raise the debt limit immediately.
“The utter chaos of the Republican party must not threaten the full faith and credit of the United States and the American people,” Reid said. “While negotiations on a budget deal continue, we should work together immediately to take the threat of default off the table.”