The Republican leadership contest was thrown into disarray and uncertainty on Thursday afternoon when House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., unexpectedly withdrew from the race for Speaker of the House.
Republican congressmen say McCarthy informed them he didn't have a chance of becoming Speaker after the caucus conference when they were supposed to choose a replacement for outgoing Speaker John Boehner.
Tom Rooney said that when the meeting was called to order, and the Pledge of Allegiance was recited, McCarthy stepped down from his position as a candidate. The overwhelming favorite said that he was withdrawing from the race because he did not want his supporters to be attacked for voting for him.
As soon as he finished speaking, Speaker Boehner called for the meeting to be ended. According to Rooney, there was "complete astonishment," and some people were sobbing.
After leaving the meeting, McCarthy claimed that his decision was made with the GOP conference in mind and that there was a need for new leadership.
McCarthy said, "If we're going to come together and be strong, we need a fresh face to help us achieve that." I believe we're only going to become stronger as a result of this decision, and that gives me hope.
As Boehner's second-in-command, McCarthy entered Thursday's vote as the clear favorite. McCarthy resigned rather than face a potentially contentious vote when a sizable conservative faction, the House Freedom Caucus, endorsed Florida Representative Dan Webster and Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz announced his candidacy at the last minute.
McCarthy has been under fire lately for an interview in which he seemed to imply that the special congressional committee examining the Benghazi terrorist attacks was formed only to harm the presidential campaign of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. McCarthy explained and apologized, but others worried the harm was already done. McCarthy acknowledged in his short comments after the meeting that his poorly worded statements had been counterproductive.
McCarthy ultimately seemed fearful of inheriting the same renegade caucus in Boehner, leading him into stalemates on many occasions.
In an interview with Politico following his announcement, he stated, "We all fought to get the majority. And I had a lot of people who were incredibly supportive that said, 'Why do you want to do it during this time? This time will be the worst. They're going to devour you and chew you up.'"
The House GOP announced on Twitter that leadership elections would be postponed. After announcing his resignation at the end of October last month, Boehner stated on Thursday that he would stay Speaker until a new replacement was elected.
Following Boehner's resignation announcement last month, the speakership, majority leader, and whip roles in the House became vacant. It was planned for the end of the month to be when the whole House would cast their votes for the next Speaker of the House.
Given the turbulent nature of the Republican party, finding a consensus candidate who could win over both conservatives and mainstream Republicans may be impossible. Some party members have suggested that former vice presidential candidate and current Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan may help bridge the divide.
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) speculated that Ryan was the only congressman with a chance of garnering 218 votes in the caucus. However, Ryan has already said that he will not be running.
Later on Thursday, though, the Washington Post claimed that Boehner had personally appealed to Ryan over the phone twice to run for Speaker.
Dent, a moderate Republican and Boehner's close friend, said that legislators could need to build a coalition with Democrats to find a consensus speaker. It's obvious to "anyone with eyeballs," as Dent put it, that the Republicans are at odds with one another.
Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California said the party might benefit from a "caretaker speaker" to hold the gavel until January 2017 elections could be placed. However, they would need to be an experienced member who is not interested in serving a full term.
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