McCarthy Drops Out of Speaker Race, Shocks GOP

McCarthy Drops Out of Speaker Race, Shocks GOP
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House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy dropped out of the race to be the next speaker of the House Thursday morning, shocking members as they were preparing to cast votes for the position.

The decision came mere hours after McCarthy addressed his colleagues and made his final pitch for why he should be elected to succeed John Boehner. After his announcement, the election was postponed and the race to replace Boehner, who announced his resignation last month, was thrown into chaos. McCarthy appeared to have a majority of support within the Republican conference leading up to the scheduled vote Thursday afternoon, but many members said he was short of the 218 needed to be elected on the House floor later this month.

“Over the last week it has become clear to me that our Conference is deeply divided and needs to unite behind one leader,” McCarthy said in a statement following his announcement. “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.”

McCarthy’s candidacy, which lasted less than two weeks, was embroiled in controversy. He was believed by most members to be the frontrunner after serving as majority leader for just over one year, but momentum began to swing against him after he made controversial comments that the Select Committee on Benghazi had successfully damaged Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers. Along with that, he was facing a difficult math problem regarding votes, especially after he failed to win support from the conservative House Freedom Caucus, the group that helped push Boehner toward retirement.

Many of those conservative lawmakers have said they could not justify replacing Boehner with another member of the current leadership. McCarthy acknowledged the difficulty of that position after announcing his decision.

“I don’t want making voting for speaker a tough one,” he said. “I don’t want to go to the floor and win with 220 votes. I think the best thing for our party right now is you have 247 votes on the floor” — a reference to the number of Republicans who hold House seats.

When asked if his Benghazi comments played into his decision not to run for speaker, McCarthy said, “That wasn’t helpful.” 

Members filed out of the meeting, which lasted less than half an hour, in a state of shock, with none of them saying they expected McCarthy’s departure. Many said they could barely hear McCarthy’s comments, and it took a minute to comprehend what was happening. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, one of the Freedom Caucus conservatives, told reporters McCarthy said, “I’m not the guy.”

With McCarthy bowing out of the race, the chaos and uncertainty that have plagued the Republican conference for months were ratcheted up, with few members able to name a legitimate candidate to coalesce around. Rep. Paul Ryan, often considered the best positioned to unite the conference, restated his intention not to run minutes after the announcement.  Two announced candidates remain in the race: Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Florida Rep. Daniel Webster

A number of Republican members leaving the meeting floated the idea of an interim speaker – someone who has served for a number of years and could guide the conference through a number of looming battles, including raising the debt ceiling and funding the government, while they decide how to move forward. But who would desire that position was much less clear.

“I don’t know why anyone would want to try to do this job right now,” Rep. Luke Messer said following the meeting.

McCarthy told Boehner he was dropping out before making his announcement, and the Ohio Republican issued a statement saying he would stay on as speaker until the House elected someone to replace him. It’s unclear when that may be; Boehner’s statement simply said that elections would be announced at a later date, and he was confident a new speaker would be elected “within the coming weeks.”

President Obama was “surprised” that McCarthy, seemingly on the verge of a promotion in the GOP conference, instead withdrew his name Thursday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.

The result is “chaos” on Capitol Hill, Earnest said several times, pointing to both serious and embarrassing repercussions at a time when the nation’s ability to borrow, to fund the government, and to propel legislation that has attracted bipartisan support appeared at risk. “There’s been a rupture in the Republican Party,” he said.

Asked if Obama wanted Boehner to remain at the helm, his spokesman offered three responses. First, Obama believes the hunt for a House speaker is up to the GOP conference, and the president is staying out of it. Second, the dramatic upheaval within the conference is illustrative of something Democrats have long argued: governing and legislating without coalitions that favor compromise is akin to anarchy. And third, past clashes over raising the debt ceiling and keeping the government running suggested House Republicans know how to vote “without drama” to sidestep economic and political disasters.

“We continue to be hopeful that cooler heads will prevail,” Earnest said, adding it is too early to predict how events may play out.

Alexis Simendinger contributed to this report. 

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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