WASHINGTON — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has dropped out of the race to succeed Speaker John Boehner, a shocking move that throws the House into chaos.
The move came without warning as House Republicans were in a closed-door meeting to select their nominee for speaker, with McCarthy’s wife and kids in the room. Boehner subsequently postponed the vote.
“I think I shocked some of you, huh?” McCarthy told reporters following the decision.
Boehner is poised to resign at the end of the month. There is no clear successor who can overcome the deep divisions in the party and win the post. An influential group of conservatives endorsed a long-shot candidate, Rep. Daniel Webster, on Wednesday, placing McCarthy’s ability to win the House floor vote later this month in doubt.
“If we’re going to unite and be strong, we need a new face to do that,” McCarthy said, adding that he did not want to win the race on the House floor with only enough votes to squeak by.
A source close to McCarthy told CNN the decision to drop out came down to “numbers, pure and simple,” adding that “he had the votes to win the conference vote, but there just wasn’t a path to 218” — the number of votes needed to lock down the speakership on the House floor.
The uncertain future of House GOP leadership comes less than a month before Congress must take action to raise the debt ceiling to keep the U.S. from defaulting on its debt obligations — a critical vote conservatives have in the past sought to stall in order to pull concessions from Democrats.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid was quick to call on House Republicans to “bring a clean debt ceiling increase to the floors of the House and Senate immediately” to avoid a credit downgrade. “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,” Reid said in a statement.
McCarthy’s candidacy ran into trouble last week after he suggested that the House’s select committee on Benghazi was an attempt to hurt Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers.
Asked if that affected his decision, McCarthy acknowledged: “Well, that wasn’t helpful.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who late last week jumped into the Speaker’s race, called an impromptu news conference less than an hour after Republicans began pouring out of the GOP conference meeting. The Utah Republican said he was also “absolutely stunned, surprised and shocked.”
Chaffetz said he would continue to campaign for the top House post and said “we need to find somebody that our whole body can unite behind and do what were elected to do.”
“I do believe it is time for a fresh start. That was the whole genesis for my campaign, but we need to have a lot more family discussion,” he said. “I think we have a lot of internal fracturing that’s happening. And we need to figure out a way to unite the party.”
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-California, described McCarthy’s move as “courageous,” saying this is “exciting” for the party because there is now a “wide open” race for speaker.
“Because of his verbal blunder last week there were some of us that were very apprehensive and this going to create great unity among Republicans,” Rohrabacher said.
No successor in sight
Boehner said in a statement he will remain in his post until a new speaker is elected, though he has yet to announce the date for the new vote.
“I’m confident we will elect a new Speaker in the coming weeks. Our conference will work together to ensure we have the strongest team possible as we continue to focus on the American people’s priorities,” he said in a written statement.
Boehner also canceled a scheduled appearance Thursday night on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” an NBC spokeswoman said.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican and member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus that opposed McCarthy’s bid, said the decision creates a “brand new race for speaker.”
“I am not the one,” McCarthy told the Republicans in the meeting, according to Huelskamp.
Huelskamp also took shots at McCarthy, saying the majority leader was campaigning for the top post until “three hours ago” and said the lack of “advance notice” was characteristic of the “stunts” that have defined Boehner’s leadership as speaker — including his surprise resignation the day after Pope Francis addressed a joint meeting of Congress.
And just as McCarthy got a brief heads up moments before that announcement, McCarthy also gave Boehner notice shortly before Thursday’s conference meeting, a Boehner aide told CNN.
Members had no indication the move was coming. “Totally stunned,” said Rep. Peter King, R-New York, on CNN.
“What Kevin has done is extremely selfless, and I think he’s done a brave and courageous thing,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas. “He was close to being right there and he chose to unite the conference rather than waging battles. ”
The House Freedom Caucus entered a closed-door meeting before 1 p.m., Rep. Mick Mulvaney said on CNN, saying the group will review some possible candidates.
Ryan, Gowdy out
Rep. Paul Ryan, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and someone who had been viewed as a contender for the job, immediately said he is not interested.
“While I am grateful for the encouragement I’ve received, 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,” Ryan said in a statement.
With conservatives again floating his name, Rep. Trey Gowdy said he will not run for speaker. Asked if he would reconsider and join the race if his GOP colleagues urged him to get in, he replied, “No.”
“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. Over the last week, it has become clear to me that our Conference is deeply divided and needs to unite behind one leader. I have always put this Conference ahead of myself. Therefore I am withdrawing my candidacy for Speaker of the House. I look forward to working alongside my colleagues to help move our Conference’s agenda and our country forward.”
-Rep. Kevin McCarthy