"For us to unite, we probably need a fresh face," he said.
McCarthy's exit from the race now leaves Republicans scrambling to figure out who could replace outgoing Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who is supposed to step down at the end of those month after he failed to bring the conservative and establishment factions of his party together.
"It is total confusion -- a banana republic," Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) told The Washington Post's Bob Costa. " ... People are crying, they don’t have any idea how this will unfold, at all."
And while things might seem bad now, history shows it could have been a lot worse. Here's a look at three other times the House devolved into chaos over speaker drama.
1854: A nine-week standoff
Just before the Civil War, the nation was struggling with another shift -- in its demographics. The sudden burst of German and Irish immigrants, as well as tension over slavery and what to do with freed slaves, created palpable tension. "Suddenly, native-born Americans became conscious of the large number of foreigners in the midst, and many of them resented it," wrote historian Robert V. Remini in his excellent tome, "The House," a thorough history of the House of Representatives.
From those resentments sprang the largely anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party, which did very well in 1854 election and -- not unlike the group of 30 conservatives wielding influence today -- essentially controlled the balance of power in Congress.
The new, fractious reality proved intractable for the beleaguered Whig Party, which was losing members in droves. When it came time to elect a new speaker for the 34th Congress, "a titanic battle erupted," between the Know-Nothings, the once-powerful Whigs and the growing Democrats and Republicans.
Remini writes: "The chamber resounded with long, acrimonious speeches in which threats and near fist-fights were a regular occurrence." Members armed themselves with knives and pistols to protect themselves from sudden attacks, he wrote.
The election for speaker lasted nine weeks and took 133 ballots. Finally, Nathaniel P. Banks, "a Know-Nothing and a Free-Soiler from Massachusetts," beat out William Aiken of South Carolina, 103-100. It was the longest election of a speaker to date.
1910: The takedown of Joe Cannon
The turn of the 20th century saw the election of one of the most powerful speakers ever, Rep. Joseph Cannon.
The white-bearded Illinois Republican, with his top hat and ubiquitous cigar, successfully blocked many of President Theodore Roosevelt's attempted business and corruption reforms. Cannon had appointed himself chair of the all-powerful Rules Committee, which even today decides what legislation appears on the floor and when.
Cannon was so effective at getting what he wanted that his tight-fistedness inspired a new term: "Cannonism."
In 1910, seven years into Cannon's reign, several members of his own party decided "Cannonism had to end," Remini wrote. On March 17, a revolt began.
George Norris, a Republican from Nebraska, never set out to unseat Cannon. But he read a resolution on the House floor suggesting Cannon be stripped of his power on the Rules Committee.
And acrimonious 26 hours of debate ensued, and eventually a group of Republicans opposed to Cannon joined with Democrats to vote 182 to 162 strip the reigning speaker of some of his power. Most notably, he'd have to give up his seat on the Rules Committee.
Alice Longworth, as quoted by Remini, detailed Cannon's fall from grace:
"It was a continuous rough-and-tumble on the floor," she said. "Uncle Joe, who so recently had been regarded with fear, respect and even some degree of affection, was greeted with jeers and catcalls."
Cannon lost his speakership title a few months later when Democrats won control of the House.
1998: The Bob Livingston shocker
It was the middle of the Bill Clinton impeachment trials, and Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) had just stepped down, disgraced by a poor party showing in the 1998 midterm elections, two shutdowns and a disastrous news conference at which he suggested he had triggered the shutdown drama over being disrespected by Bill Clinton on a diplomatic trip to Israel.
Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) had decided enough was enough. The powerful chairman of the Appropriations Committee was going to challenge Gingrich. According to Remini, he told Gingrich: "I'm going to run against you. I said that at about 10 o'clock in the morning" on Nov. 6, 1998. "By 2 o'clock, [Gingrich] announced that he was not going to run again."
Republicans chose Livingston as their speaker-designate, but Livingston's moment of glory didn't last long.
As he pushed ahead with impeachment of Clinton, Livingston's own affair came to light, "electrifying the nation," Remini wrote. "Here were two of the leaders of the government, disgraced by their actions. Livingston decided to do something about it."
Livingston, then still speaker-designate and not officially the speaker, took to the House floor on Dec. 19 to deliver a speech. I'll let Ken Gormley, author of "The Death of the American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr" take it from here:
You know how the story ends: The House, predictably, devolved into chaos. And America continued on.
Correction: This post initially said President Theodore Roosevelt was a Democrat. He was a Republican.