House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy — the early favorite — withdrew from the race for speaker of the U.S. House Thursday forcing Speaker John Boehner to cancel a planned vote later this month for his replacement.
“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. “I have always put this conference ahead of myself. Therefore I am withdrawing my candidacy for speaker of the House.”
Speaking to reporters, McCarthy said: “For us to unite, we probably need a fresh face.” He said he didn’t want to win by eking out a victory because the House needs a speaker with strong GOP support. McCarthy was being opposed by a small but determined bloc of hard-line conservatives.
McCarthy said he would stay on as majority leader.
Local members of Congress were shocked by the announcement.
“It was an unreal, almost surreal situation,” Warren County- area Rep. Steve Chabot said Thursday. Chabot was in the room when McCarthy announced he was dropping out of the race. He said McCarthy spoke so quietly that many in the room weren’t sure what he was saying.
“We’re kind of in uncharted waters here, at least in this century,” Chabot said.
Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, said that despite the chaos of Thursday, the Republican Party is still “strong.”
“We still have John Boehner with the gavel in his hand,” he said. “Work is getting done here, debate is continuing.”
He said the focus now will be on trying to get House Republicans to “move forward” and find a new speaker. Under questioning, he stopped short of endorsing Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who has also expressed interest in being speaker. Chaffetz and Turner were among the lawmakers who sought the House Oversight and Government Reform chairmanship last year. Chaffetz ultimately was picked to be chairman.
While Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, could not be reached for comment, the caucus he leads — the House Freedom Caucus — released a statement saying it respected McCarthy’s decision. “We believe that the House needs the principled leadership of a Speaker who will empower the institution, its members, and the American people,” it said.
Jordan spokesman Darin Miller said late Thursday that Jordan was not interested in being speaker.
Boehner has wrestled with a caucus that is often fiercely divided over tactics, not universally opposed to shutting down the government, and rarely inclined to embrace negotiation. Among the biggest thorns in his side: roughly 40 ultra-conservative members, including Jordan, who have often pushed for deeper budget cuts and a harder line against President Barack Obama.
“Our founders gave us a family of 535 members and it’s a dysfunctional family at best, and people think that we can do miracles,” Boehner told Ohio reporters.
What happens next is unknown. McCarthy was by far the heavy favorite to replace Boehner. Congress is facing major budget deadlines and fiscal decisions.
At the White House, presidential spokesman Josh Earnest said it would be easy for Democrats to poke fun at the Republicans’ troubles if not for the serious issues Congress faces. He said the next speaker will have to tame a small but vocal group of lawmakers with a strong ideological bent or find a way to “buck up” more mainstream House Republicans.
The lawmaker most widely seen as a potential speaker in McCarthy’s place immediately ruled it out.
“Kevin McCarthy is the best person to lead the House, and so I’m disappointed in this decision,” said Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 vice presidential nominee who now chairs the Ways and Means Committee. “While I am grateful for the encouragement I’ve received, I will not be a candidate.
One leadership ally, Rep. Steve Stivers of the Columbus area, said McCarthy “didn’t see a path to 218” — the number of votes needed to prevail on the House floor. McCarthy faced opposition from a bloc of 30-plus hard-line conservative lawmakers who didn’t command the numbers to block him in Thursday’s secret-ballot elections, but might have prevented him from winning a floor vote later on. The House has 247 Republicans.
There was talk among some lawmakers of elevating a “caretaker” speaker who could serve with consensus support at least for the short term.
Thursday’s secret ballot — even if it had proceeded as expected — still would have been merely an early skirmish in the chaotic battle to lead the House. It was to have been followed by the vote in the full House where the Freedom Caucus could have blocked McCarthy’s ascent.
McCarthy’s candidacy for speaker had gotten off to a rough start with a gaffe when he suggested the House’s Benghazi committee was set up to drive down Hillary Rodham Clinton’s poll numbers, rather than search for the truth about the 2012 attacks in Libya that killed four Americans. He was roundly criticized and quickly backtracked, but the flub dogged him, giving an opening for Chaffetz to get into the race.
“That wasn’t helpful,” McCarthy told reporters. “I could have said it much better.”
Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor, Mary Clare Jalonick and Alan Fram contributed to this report.