The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy drops out of race for House speaker

The Post's Elise Viebeck on the sudden news — and what happens next. (Video: Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

The infamously fractious House Republican Conference sank deeper into chaos Thursday after Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy abruptly withdrew his bid to replace John A. Boehner as speaker, a stunning move that left the party scrambling to find a new leader and deeply uncertain about how to effectively manage the House.

McCarthy (R-Calif.) announced his surprise decision at a meeting of House Republicans who gathered to select their candidate for speaker ahead of the official floor vote scheduled for Oct. 29. McCarthy was widely expected to win the support of his colleagues.

Instead he emerged to declare: “We need a fresh face.” McCarthy said at a news conference that he did not want to burden his members with a tough vote for speaker.

“I don’t want to go to the floor and win with 220 votes,” he said. “I think the best thing for our party right now is that you have 247 votes on the floor.”

With his wife at his side, he said his decision was about promoting unity. “If we’re going to unite and be strong, we need a new face to help do that. So nothing more than that.”

[This contest is now wide open. Who’s next?]

McCarthy’s candidacy to succeed the retiring Boehner (R-Ohio) was damaged in recent days by a public gaffe — a television interview in which he seemed to suggest that the Select Committee on Benghazi, the panel assembled by Republicans to investigate the 2012 attacks on U.S. facilities in Libya, was intended to damage Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential poll numbers.

“Well, that wasn’t helpful. I could have said it much better,” McCarthy acknowledged after dropping out of the race. “That’s part of the decision as well.” McCarthy said he will remain in his post as majority leader and seek reelection in 2016.

Still, McCarthy, who had been Boehner’s preferred successor, had been expected to earn the votes he needed before heading to a vote of the full House. That left significant confusion about his last-minute withdrawal — and whom Republicans might rally around as an alternative for the nation’s third-highest job.

There was an immediate push to recruit Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the former vice-presidential nominee and chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Ryan is one of most widely respected members in the conference, with broad support among conservatives and moderates, as well as newcomers and veterans. But Ryan has repeatedly insisted he is not interested in the job, including in a new statement soon after McCarthy’s withdrawal. “While I am grateful for the encouragement I’ve received, I will not be a candidate,” he said.

[Why Paul Ryan won’t run for speaker]

Over two long phone conversations Thursday, Boehner urged Ryan to reconsider, according to two sources familiar with the exchanges, insisting that Ryan is the only person who can unite the House GOP at a time of turmoil.

Boehner, who last month said he would resign the speakership after weeks of facing a near-certain revolt from conservatives, had been scheduled to step down Oct. 30. Following McCarthy’s declaration, Boehner promised to stay on until the House elects his replacement.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif). says he does not want to be a "distraction" from the committee investigating the attack on Americans in Benghazi. (Video: AP)

Reaction to McCarthy’s surprise departure from the speaker’s race reflected deep divisions within the Republican Party.

Some conservatives seized the moment as a victory, celebrating the downfall of one of the House’s fastest-rising but more moderate stars.

On the eve of Thursday’s planned vote, a group of 30 to 40 of the chamber’s most conser­vative members, known as the Freedom Caucus, significantly changed the dynamics of the race by promising to throw its weight behind low-profile Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) over McCarthy.

The move had jeopardized McCarthy’s chances to lock up the speakership on the floor, where he could not afford to lose more than 29 Republican votes if he wanted to win without Democratic support. In McCarthy’s place, they pledged to push for one of their own, a hard-liner on fiscal and social issues.

[The Fix: Republicans have a revolution on their hands]

More-moderate Republicans, including McCarthy allies from swing districts, also worked Thursday to draft a candidate.

Democrats tried to capitalize on the chaos, citing McCarthy’s withdrawal as a sign that the GOP is ungovernable — and unable to govern the country.

“There’s a minority group of conservative politicians that places their own extreme ideology ahead of everything else and certainly ahead of effective governance of the country, but also today of effective governance of the House Republican caucus,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.

[House conservatives spurn McCarthy ahead of speaker vote]

Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) urged Republican leaders to quickly move legislation that would lift the government’s debt limit, which the Treasury Department estimates will be hit around Nov. 5. “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,” he said in a statement.

Several lawmakers said they were caught off guard by McCarthy’s departure, and much of the day was spent speculating about McCarthy’s motives. Many believed he had simply concluded he could not win the job.

The California Republican had failed to woo conservatives, and some establishment Republicans threatened to oppose him, too, if he was likely to win the job only by a thin margin. Others attributed McCarthy’s downfall to the continuing anger at his comments about the Benghazi panel.

At a meeting Thursday morning that preceded the scheduled conference vote, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) publicly dressed down McCarthy for his Benghazi comments and described how they had harmed his ability to lead and be a forceful speaker in the 2016 campaign. Rohrabacher “went off on McCarthy on how bad and wrong it was” and how much his comments had embarrassed and politically kneecapped House Republicans, one lawmaker said.

Some also questioned whether McCarthy was chased from the race by a letter sent by Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), who chairs the Republican conference. In the letter, Jones called for any leadership candidate who had committed “misdeeds” since joining Congress to drop out of the running.

“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 committed since joining Congress that will embarrass himself, the Republican Conference, and the House of Representatives if they become public,” Jones urged.

He offered no further specifics in the letter, and in an interview after McCarthy’s announcement, Jones said his letter was not directed at McCarthy in particular. He also said he had no reason to believe the letter forced McCarthy’s exit. “Everybody wants to know why he stepped down, the man that was in the lead,” Jones said. “I don’t know why he would step down.”

McCarthy insisted the letter played no role in his decision. “Nah, nah. Come on,” he told a reporter who asked about it.

Without Ryan in the race, the ideal pick for both establishment and conservative Republicans was unclear.

Other hopefuls — including Webster, who was a state House speaker in Florida, and Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) — were working to convince colleagues that they were up to the job. Chaffetz had announced Sunday that he would challenge McCarthy for the position.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), a Boehner ally 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 (R-Tex.), a former member of the Boehner leadership team, as a contender with strong relationships with the party’s conservative bloc. Other names mentioned were Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the chair of the Benghazi committee, and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), chair of the House Freedom Caucus. But Gowdy said he is backing Ryan and Jordan said he was not interested in running. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who preceded Chaffetz as chairman of the Oversight Committee, was also said to be considering a bid.

Rep. Lynn A. Westmoreland (R-Ga.) said he is considering a run for speaker. He told a group of his colleagues in a conference call that his experience in the state legislature prepared him for the role and that he planned to make calls Friday to seek support.

Most of the ambitious but less-seasoned Republicans who have considered leadership spent Thursday reacting to the news rather than quickly assembling coalitions.

Reps. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), who were already running for lower leadership spots should McCarthy have won the speakership, were encouraged to look higher up the chain of command but appear inclined to hold on to their current positions. Rep. Peter J. Roskam (R-Ill.), who was a frontline participant in the latest talks about the GOP’s future, also mulled his options. So did McMorris Rodgers, the conference chair and the party’s highest-ranking woman, and House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.), who has harbored dreams of leadership and had previously run unsuccessfully.

Yet none of these members seemed poised Thursday to take McCarthy’s position as the front-runner. All are relatively popular in certain circles, but few carry the national political heft of Ryan or McCarthy.

William Branigin, Paul Kane, Carol D. Leonnig, Kelsey Snell and Elise Viebeck contributed to this report.