House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has pulled himself out of the race to replace John Boehner as speaker of the House, he told the GOP caucus Thursday. House Republicans announced that the leadership election has been postponed “until a later date.”
“I think I shocked some of you, huh?,” McCarthy said in short press remarks just before 1 p.m. Saying he feels good about his decision, McCarthy suggested, “To unite, we probably need a fresh face.”
A reporter asked McCarthy if his controversial comments about the Benghazi Select Committee—in which he implied its objective has been to hurt Hillary Clinton in the presidential race—played into his decision. “Well, that wasn’t helpful,” McCarthy replied. The leader’s office said that he intends to stay on in his current post.
The overall mood on the Hill has been of absolute shock.
One of McCarthy’s challengers, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, told reporters he was “absolutely stunned” in short remarks to press Thursday afternoon. “Did not see this coming.” Chaffetz, who said he’s staying in the race, said, “I really do believe it is time for a fresh start—that was the whole genesis of my campaign.” Before coming to the podium, Chaffetz said, “I don’t know if I’m the right person,” and that “the conference needs to have a variety of choices. That’s a healthy part of the process. That’s why I put my name in the ring.”
Rep. Ryan Costello, one of the first 10 members to exit the room where McCarthy made his announcement, said the majority leader stood up in front of the room and said he is not the right person to unify the conference. Boehner then said the election would be postponed. In a statement later, Boehner said that he will stay on as speaker until a new leader is elected, which he is “confident” will happen in the coming weeks.
Rep. Peter King came out of the meeting completely stunned. King said that it was hard to hear what McCarthy was saying. “We were all just thunderstruck,” said Rep. John Fleming.
“I’m still trying to process what just happened,” said Rep. Lou Barletta.
Rep. Mark Sanford came out of the meeting with a full plate of barbecue, slaw, and a slew of questions. He said some members were crying as McCarthy made his announcement. “There were a lot of emotions, because it was so extraordinary and out of the ordinary,” he said. “The person next to me was crying,” Rep. Tom Rooney said.
Rep. Brett Guthrie, who had been committed to support McCarthy, said he was stunned, adding that he had spoken with McCarthy’s wife just before the news broke and even she didn’t give the secret away.
Rep. Darrell Issa told reporters shortly after the news broke that the Republican conference was taken aback by the news. “Kevin McCarthy had the vast majority of the conference’s confidence and votes,” Issa said. According to Issa, McCarthy will become “the most important endorsement for whoever ultimately becomes the speaker.”
What comes next is, so far, uncertain.
Rep. Trey Gowdy told reporters that there are members who have the ability to lead and unite the party, but “they are not willing to do it.” When asked if he would take the job himself if his colleagues asked, he entered the elevator, turned around, and said, “No.”
One of those Republicans who has pulled himself out is House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. After McCarthy’s decision, Ryan again stated that he has no interest in running for the job. “Kevin McCarthy is best person to lead the House, and so I’m disappointed in this decision,” he said in a statement. “Now it is important that we, as a conference, take time to deliberate and seek new candidates for the speakership. While I am grateful for the encouragement I’ve received, I will not be a candidate.”
Rep. Charlie Dent speculated to the cause for McCarthy’s sudden decision, saying: “It was pretty simple actually. Kevin had a strong majority of votes among the Republican members to become the next speaker. It’s pretty obvious he didn’t have 218 votes … and had this gone to the floor, I think there was great concern that maybe he couldn’t get 218 votes, and it would have been obviously embarrassing to not be elected speaker.”
“Before John Boehner stepped down, I said, if John Boehner steps down, the same people who were trying to take John Boehner down will try to frag the next guy,” Dent said. “Well, that is just what happened.” When asked who Boehner allies would now support, Rep. Pat Tiberi threw up his arms.
Rep. Rooney, a McCarthy supporter, said he approached the majority leader after his decision and said he would have taken heat for voting for him. “That’s what I just told McCarthy in there, you know, ‘I would’ve taken the arrows for you. I already have,’” he said. “He’s obviously put the party ahead of himself, I guess. I just don’t know where we go from here.”
There has been some immediate support for McCarthy’s decision though among Republicans. “This was exactly what John Boehner did. He put the interests of the party, of the Congress, and the nation ahead of his own personal interests. It was an honorable thing that Kevin did. I think he recognized that he had no path to get to 218 votes on the House floor, and leaving here with the nomination based just on 51 percent and having two weeks to try unsuccessfully to get to 218 on the House floor was something he didn’t want to put his party through. I think he made the right decision,” said Rep. David Jolly.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who had been critical of McCarthy last week, said McCarthy was “courageous” for stepping out of the race: “This is a terrific thing for the party. This opens the whole party.”
Rep. Steve King said McCarthy’s decision was “noble,” and he plans to continue to support Rep. Daniel Webster for speaker. Rep. Louie Gohmert also said he planned to stay behind Webster. Webster, for his part, said he had been “99 percent sure” McCarthy would win. “I was shocked,” he said. Webster says he’ll continue his campaign for the gavel.
The House Freedom Caucus called an emergency meeting directly after the announcement. Rep. Mick Mulvaney said he spoke with McCarthy 20 minutes before the election was to occur, and McCarthy was looking for HFC Chairman Jim Jordan. But he said the group isn’t claiming another scalp as they have with Boehner’s resignation. “I don’t take it as a victory,” he said. But when asked how to move forward, he said there are a couple possibilities: “We could start talking now about a caretaker. We could talk about someone in the center who could be acceptable to both sides. We might talk about somebody who is an institutionalist, like Webster.”
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a vocal opponent of the current GOP leadership, though, declared a victory of sorts on MSNBC. “This leadership has lost,” Huelskamp said. “They have essentially lost two speakers in two weeks.”
“This is remarkably similar to the Gingrich-Livingston-Hastert situation of about 20 years ago,” Jolly said. “Where the way we ended up with a Speaker Hastert is because the caucus got thrown into such disarray that we had to build consensus behind closed doors. And that’s what we should have done. We should’ve been working today to get to 218 as a family behind closed doors before risking a loss on the House floor.”
This story is breaking and will be updated. Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Penn.
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