House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, dogged by persistent skepticism from hardcore conservatives and facing questions about his qualifications, abruptly withdrew Thursday from the race to replace John Boehner as speaker of the House of Representatives.
McCarthy, R-Calif., who began Thursday as an embattled but clear favorite to win the House Republican caucus’ nomination for speaker, stunned colleagues with his announcement, tossing the race to elect a new speaker – third in line for the presidency – into turmoil. No logical successor was readily apparent, nor was there even a sense of when warring Republicans could come together to discuss how to proceed.
“Over the last week it has become clear to me that our conference is deeply divided and needs to unite behind one leader,” McCarthy said in a statement released after his announcement. “I have always put this conference ahead of myself. Therefore I am withdrawing my candidacy for speaker of the House.”
While McCarthy, a five-term congressman from California’s Central Valley, withdrew from the speaker’s race, he remains House majority leader. If he had been contemplating exiting the race, it was a shock to most of the members of the 247-member House Republican caucus who had assembled in an ornate hearing room in a Capitol office building for a noon closed-door meeting.
They were to pick a successor to Boehner, R-Ohio, who had planned to step down Oct. 30. The nominee was to be formally ratified by a vote of the full House the previous day.
Instead, the Thursday vote was postponed. Lawmakers emerged from the meeting shocked, unsure what was next. Several prominent Republican names were floated. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, was seen as someone acceptable to the two wings of the party, and Boehner reportedly seconded that notion.
“I think Paul Ryan is the only eligible candidate. For now, we’ll sit and wait,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. “Everybody’s eligible. But in terms of who can do the job and lead us into the next election cycle, we have to have a top-tier candidate, and really from the start of this Kevin and Paul were the only two we had at that caliber.”
Ryan, in a statement released moments after McCarthy’s announcement, said, “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.”
House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., was also being mentioned. So were McCarthy’s two underdog challengers: Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla., who Wednesday won the backing of the 40-member House Freedom Caucus, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.
It’s clear that our constituents will not accept the continuation of the status quo.
House Freedom Caucus statement
Succession, though, was not the prevailing topic.
“Disbelief. The thing was over,” said Rep. John Fleming, R-La. “We just settled in and before we know it we’re adjourned. We weren’t sure what to think. We began to ask each other. It happened so fast and so unexpectedly, it hadn’t gotten through to us.”
Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said McCarthy was “calm, cool and collected” as he chatted with his GOP colleagues before dropping his bombshell.
“His wife was there, said they talked about it the night before and came up with a decision,” Sanford said.
McCarthy lamented to colleagues that he didn’t see a unified caucus. He also cast himself as the face of a leadership that had an insider image that many Republicans found uncomfortable.
“I have the deepest respect and regard for each member of the conference and our team as a whole. It is imperative for us to unite and work together on the challenges facing our country,” he said in his statement.
Freedom Caucus members balked at Boehner’s leadership because they felt he was too willing to negotiate with Democrats and too soft in dealing with President Barack Obama.
Over the last week it has become clear to me that our conference is deeply divided and needs to unite behind one leader.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy
“It’s clear that our constituents will not accept the continuation of the status quo,” the caucus said in a statement Wednesday night.
McCarthy also may have been wounded by a letter from Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., to House Republican Conference Chairman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.
With all the voter distrust of Washington, “I’m asking that any candidate for speaker of the House, majority leader and majority whip withdraw himself from the leadership election 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 wrote.
Jones insisted Thursday that he wasn’t implying anything about McCarthy’s conduct.
“I did the letter out of sincerity, saying it had nothing to do with him,” he said. “That we need to make sure whoever we elect is a man of integrity and does not have anything in his background. I don’t know that my letter had anything to do” with McCarthy’s decision to withdraw.
Still, the letter may have resonated, particularly with veteran members who recalled how two recent speakers, Democrat Jim Wright and Republican Newt Gingrich, were involved in ethical lapses. Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., was the favorite to succeed Gingrich in 1998, only to stun Capitol Hill with a last-minute withdrawal after reports of an extramarital affair. And Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., speaker from 1999 to 2007, was charged earlier this year with lying to the FBI and with financial improprieties.
McCarthy’s withdrawal leaves the speaker’s race with no favorite to succeed Boehner. Chaffetz and Webster are still in the race. Both lawmakers were surprised when front-runner McCarthy dropped out.
“It was just absolutely stunning what happened,” Chaffetz. said. “Yes, I’m still running for speaker. We haven’t had that vote yet. The conference needs to have a variety of choices, that’s a healthy part of the process. We need to have a family discussion.”
Disbelief. The thing was over. We just settled in and before we know it we’re adjourned.
Rep. John Fleming, R-La.
McCarthy’s decision left many Republicans wondering what to do and who to support for speaker.
“We’ll talk to anybody. But we are behind Webster,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a Freedom Caucus member. “I think he would be a good consensus candidate because he has the experience. So you can have Kevin McCarthy as the leader of the party, and Webster as the institutionalist.”
Rep. Rob Woodall was said he’d support fellow Georgian Price for speaker because “everything he touches turns to success, and we could use some of that success around here.”
Meanwhile, congressional Democrats looked nervously at the House Republican upheaval, worried about its potential impact on budget negotiations with the White House, efforts to increase the nation’s debt limit and avoid default.
“The utter chaos of the Republican Party must not threaten the full faith and credit of the United States,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement. “. . . While negotiations on a budget deal continue, we should work together immediately to take the threat of default off the table.”
Ali Montag of the Washington Bureau contributed.