The sudden decision Thursday by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) to withdraw from the speaker’s race thrust congressional Republicans into chaos and left the contest wide open, with a crowd of lesser-known players jockeying for power and rank-and-file members fretting that the political unrest on the hard right that drove McCarthy and House Speaker John A. Boehner away from the position has left the party unmanageable in the lower chamber.
Conservatives seized the moment as McCarthy made his exodus, celebrating the departure of one of the GOP’s moderates and fastest-rising stars — and pledging to push for one of their own, a hard-liner on fiscal and social issues, to step forward in the coming weeks before the leadership elections are rescheduled. McCarthy’s associates, many hailing from mainstream Republican districts, urged caution and began efforts to draft another centrist Republican to succeed Boehner (Ohio).
Boehner personally asked House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to run for speaker over two long phone conversations, according to two sources familiar with the exchanges. Boehner has told Ryan that he is the only person who can unite the House GOP at a time of turmoil.
“It is total confusion — a banana republic,” said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), a Boehner ally, as he recounted seeing a handful of House Republicans weeping Thursday over the downfall of McCarthy and the broader discord. “Any plan, anything you anticipate, who knows what’ll happen. People are crying. They don’t have any idea how this will unfold at all.”
The scene at the Capitol yielded more questions than answers by the hour Thursday afternoon, with an array of influential figures such as Ryan still reluctant to take McCarthy’s place as the consensus candidate of the party’s establishment and those averse to firebrands. As they mulled and were courted, a parade of hopefuls with low profiles beyond Capitol Hill — such as Rep. Daniel Webster (Fla.), a former state House speaker, and Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (Utah) — made the case in huddles and in the hallways that they are ready to be a fresh face for an unsettled House.
McCarthy, too, called for a “new face” during a news conference, asking for unity behind a leadership slate that is not as closely aligned with Boehner and the old bulls who have retained a grip over the House GOP in recent years even as a younger generation of Republicans has ascended. Who that face could be is unclear, and most ambitious, less-seasoned House Republicans who have considered running for the leadership in the past spent Thursday reacting to the news rather than quickly assembling coalitions.
Boehner, who last month said he would resign the speakership after weeks of facing a near-certain revolt from conservatives frustrated by his handling of legislation and what they see as a lack of aggression in countering President Obama’s agenda, said he will “serve as speaker until the House votes to elect a new speaker.”
The bench for the House GOP is sparse, emptied in recent years by the same forces that have vexed Boehner and McCarthy. Virginia’s Eric Cantor, then the majority leader and firmly in line to succeed Boehner, was defeated in a 2014 House primary by a conservative challenger, elevating McCarthy but gutting the leadership of the political capital that Cantor had accumulated.
The committee chairmanships, long a grooming area for future leaders and the path Boehner took to the speakership, have been filled in places by youthful members such as Chaffetz, 48. And the leadership slots below Boehner and McCarthy – majority whip and chief deputy whip – are occupied by Steve Scalise (La.) and Patrick McHenry (N.C.), respectively. Both have served in the House for a decade or less and are inexperienced as national spokesmen — inside operatives but far from recognizable voices.
That left Republicans searching Thursday for new names to add to mix. King floated Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a respected former House GOP campaign chairman, as a person who could be a calming presence. Several conservatives suggested House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Tex.), a former leadership member who has strong relationships with the party’s conservative bloc.
Others on the right said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which was wary of McCarthy, would best reflect the political drift and impulses of the House. But he told reporters that he is not interested.
Another House Republican who drew interest was Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who is chairing the House Select Committee delving into the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya. William Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, said in a Twitter message that Gowdy should be “interim speaker for next year,” days after Gowdy was called to run for the post by conservative groups who have cheered his Benghazi investigation. But as the boomlet began, Gowdy said “no” when asked by reporters whether he would consider running.
Scalise and McHenry, who had been running for lower leadership spots should McCarthy win the speakership, were encouraged to look higher up the chain of command. Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), who has been a front-line participant in the latest talks about the future of the GOP, also mulled his options. So did Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), the conference chairwoman and the party’s highest-ranking woman, and House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (Ga.), who has harbored dreams of being in the leadership and previously ran unsuccessfully.
Yet none of those members seemed poised Thursday to follow in McCarthy’s footsteps as the front-runner for the gavel. They are all relatively popular with certain circles but few carry the national political heft of Ryan, who has been a vice-presidential nominee, or a McCarthy, who is the current No. 2 in the House.
“My guess is Boehner stays until a replacement has been selected on the floor,” said Rep. Bill Flores (R-Tex.).
Sensing that perhaps no one can ably navigate the terrain -- or get the necessary votes, as required by the Constitution, to win the speakership in a floor vote -- Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, said he would consider running to be interim speaker as the House GOP worked out who could actually lead it in the months ahead.
Tea-party groups weighed in, hoping to exert their own pull on the speaker’s race. Activist Mark Meckler said in a statement that the House GOP must end the “Washington cartel at a time when people are looking to outsiders to challenge the status quo.” Tea Party Patriots’ Jenny Beth Martin said this was a “historic moment” that demands a speaker with deep support with grass-roots conservatives.
McCarthy, in an interview with National Review on Thursday, said whoever follows will have to grapple with a right flank of about 40 members that wants to direct the leadership, rather than being led. “I wouldn’t have enjoyed being speaker this way,” he said.
On who he’d like to step forward, McCarthy said, “I personally want Paul Ryan.” On whether the House can be led, he said, “I don’t know. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom.”
It was that feeling, expressed across the GOP base, which gave candidates like Webster -- a backbencher who won just 12 votes in the vote for speaker earlier this year -- some optimism as others scrambled to fill the vacuum left by McCarthy. Rep. David Brat (R-Va.), who toppled Cantor in that primary last year, said on MSNBC that he was with Webster. “I went in Daniel Webster,” he said, and remains with him. Other members of the House Freedom Caucus echoed him late Thursday.
Brat added that the situation was fluid and partly reminiscent of “House of Cards,” the Netflix series of political intrigue and leadership battles in the House. “I heard some of the prior comments about Underwood and all that kind of thing,” he told the network, his face grim.