WASHINGTON – House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Thursday abruptly dropped out of the race to replace John Boehner for speaker, a stunning move that further complicates an already chaotic House leadership contest.
McCarthy announced his decision at a meeting of House Republicans who gathered to select their choice for speaker ahead of the official floor vote scheduled for Oct. 29.
“We need a fresh face,” said McCarthy in post-meeting press conference, who said he would remain as majority leader. “I don’t want making voting for speaker [on the House floor] a tough one.”
“If we’re going to be strong, we’re going to be 100 percent united. . . let’s put the conference first,” he added, with his wife at his side.
McCarthy addressed questions about whether his statement on the Select Committee on Benghazi – indicating its goal was to nick Hillary Rodham Clinton’s poll numbers – was too damaging.
“Well, that wasn’t helpful. I could have said it much better.” McCarthy admitted, adding he “should not be a distraction” from the panel finding the “truth.” “That’s part of the decision as well.”
Following the meeting in which McCarthy announced he was out of the race, Rep. John Fleming, R-La., a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, said he was “shocked just like everyone else. . .[McCarthy] said something to the effect of, ‘I’m not the guy.'”
Fleming said the 30 to 40-member Freedom Caucus will start with a clean slate of candidates and meet possibly as early as Thursday to discuss who to throw their support behind.
Republican Study Committee chairman Bill Flores, R-Texas, said the party needs to focus on a consensus candidate that can unify Republicans – and that person needs to be someone outside the current list of senior GOP leaders.
“It’s somebody who has earned the trust and respect of the big bulk of the conference,” he said. “And it’s somebody who has hopefully not burned too many bridges.”
Several Republicans leaving the meeting, including moderate Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., said it’s unclear who will emerge as the leading candidate for speaker. Boehner is slated to step down on Oct. 30 and the House floor vote is scheduled for Oct. 29.
Amid speculation that an interim speaker might be selected, Rep Hal Rogers, R-Ky., House Appropriations Committee chairman, said he expects Boehner to stay on until a new speaker is chosen.
Asked how this might impact high-stakes negotiations on federal spending and the debt limit, he quipped, “This is all we needed.”
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is the top choice of many in the GOP to fill the speaker’s shoes. But he reiterated that he is not interested after McCarthy, R-Calif., dropped out.
“Kevin McCarthy is best person to lead the House, and so I’m disappointed in this decision,” Ryan 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. I continue to believe I can best serve the country and this conference as Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.”
Dent, interviewed live on CNN, said McCarthy withdrew because although he could have won a majority of the Republican Conference, he would not have had 218 votes on the House floor.
Dent said it might be necessary to form a “bipartisan coalition” with Democrats to elect the next speaker and avoid having to appease the “rejectionist wing” of his own party, which he said has made the House ungovernable by insisting on “unreasonable demands.”
Other names that were floated amid Thursday’s chaos were Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina and Jim Jordan of Ohio, head of the Freedom Caucus.
There was also a wealth of buzzing amid the chaos about a letter sent by Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., on Tuesday to Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.
In the letter, Jones called for any leadership candidate who has committed “misdeeds” since joining Congress to drop out of the running. He did not specify what he was referring to.
“I’ve had the pleasure of serving the third district of North Carolina for the past 20 years in Congress,” Jones wrote.
“Some of the most difficult times have been when our Republican leaders or potential Republican leaders must step down because of skeletons in their closets. We’ve seen it with former Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Bob Livingston, who ran for Speaker in 1998 . . . As members of the House of Representatives, we need to be able to represent the will of the people unhindered by potentially embarrassing scandals.”
The mayhem is reminiscent of the Republican game of thrones in 1998, following an especially poor showing by Republicans in the midterm elections during the impeachment debate surrounding Bill Clinton.
Gingrich was forced to step down as speaker when Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., a friend, challenged him. But Livingston, too, decided against the race after questions were raised about infidelity to his wife. The move eventually paved the way for Dennis Hastert of Illinois to assume the speakership.
Asked by a reporter if the Jone’s letter influenced his decision, McCarthy said: “Nah, nah.”
From the Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada promptly responded to the news by urging Republican leaders to quickly move legislation that would lift the government’s debt limit, which the Treasury Department estimates will be hit around Nov. 5.
“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,” he said in a statement.
To claim the speaker’s chair, a Republican will have to claim a secure a majority of those present and voting in an Oct. 29 vote on the House floor. Without Democratic votes, a Republican nominee for speaker can’t afford to lose more than 29 votes.
McCarthy’s hopes of uniting Republicans took a blow Wednesday when a close-knit group of roughly 40 hard-line conservatives, the House Freedom Caucus, said it would back a low-profile Florida lawmaker, Rep. Daniel Webster, instead.
The group said it intended to vote as a bloc in Thursday afternoon’s party election and left open the possibility that they might unite against McCarthy on the House floor in three weeks, denying him the speakership. They didn’t even get that far.
In a statement announcing their endorsement, the Freedom Caucus suggested their position might change if “significant changes to conference leadership and process” were made, and that their numbers give them leverage to demand those changes from the next speaker.
“He has three weeks to make systemic changes,” Rep. Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, said of McCarthy. “Not just talk about the changes, but to show exactly what he’s going to do.”
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Washington Post staff writers William Branigan, Kelsey Snell and Elise Viebeck contributed to this report.