In a stunning move, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy withdrew his candidacy for House speaker Thursday, throwing Congress' Republican leadership into chaos.
McCarthy was heavily favored to win his GOP colleagues' endorsement for the post, but a vigorous challenge from hardline House conservatives threatened a smooth ratification when the full House voted Oct. 29. It is uncertain now when that vote will occur to replace Speaker John Boehner, who is to retire at the end of the month.
McCarthy shocked his colleagues at the start of Thursday's closed meeting, telling them he was not the right person for the job. He recommended that the election be postponed and Boehner delayed it.
"There was total shock, and then total silence," said Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C.
Lawmakers were in near disbelief at the announcement, which came as Republicans began a meeting for what they thought would be the election of a new speaker nominee.
"I've never seen anything like this," said Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa.
Rep. John Fleming, R-La., said he was "thunderstruck."
"We don't know why he did it," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C.
McCarthy's decision plunged the House GOP into further turmoil, just weeks after Boehner's decision to resign had left Republicans reeling.
Rep. Paul Ryan released this statement: "Kevin McCarthy is the best person to lead the House, so I'm disappointed in this decision. 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."
McCarthy later said via Twitter that the party needed to "unite behind one leader and get to work."
Just hours earlier, McCarthy and his two rivals to replace Boehner addressed a closed-door meeting of the GOP rank and file in the basement of the Capitol, making final pitches ahead of elections.
Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, who supported McCarthy, said the 50-year-old Californian pitched himself as "a proven leader, a generational change in the speakership."
"Plus he listens very carefully," Brady said, "and as a result our conference will continue to have more power over the agenda, which is what we all want."
But McCarthy had failed to win over a small but crucial bloc in the House GOP: the hardline Freedom Caucus. This group of 30-plus uncompromising conservatives drove Boehner to resign by threatening a floor vote on his speakership. On the eve of Thursday's vote they announced they would oppose Boehner's No.2, McCarthy, and back one of his rivals instead, Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida, a former speaker of the Florida House.
That was a blow to McCarthy, although there had been little expectation that the group would back the Californian.
"Power doesn't like to give up its power, and so that's why many of us have gotten behind Mr. Webster," Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana, a Freedom Caucus member, said outside Thursday's meeting. "We feel that conservatives have been greatly marginalized by the current leadership."
In an interview with CNN, Mulvaney said, "We are looking for a speaker who works with conservatives rather than against us. We presumed that Kevin was going to reach out to us and say, 'Hey, what do we need to do? What changes do we need to do?’"
Despite the opposition, McCarthy clearly had been expected to emerge the winner Thursday over Webster and a third rival, Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. That would have made McCarthy the House GOP nominee for speaker.
But his true test would have come Oct. 29, when the full House will vote for speaker in open session. With Democrats certain to back Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Republican will need to win a 218-vote majority to prevail.
If no candidate wins that majority, it would send the House into uncertain territory.
It hasn't happened in decades, but in years past speaker elections have required multiple ballots before any candidate prevailed. Some of the more establishment-aligned lawmakers are voicing fears about such an outcome on Oct. 29.
Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor and Alan Fram contributed to this report.
Best Twitter reactions to McCarthy withdrawing from speaker race
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was supposed to win the GOP leadership election to succeed retiring House Speaker John Boehner easily. Wrong.
Faced with a conservative revolt and an inability to win over his caucus, McCarthy made a stunning announcement Thursday that he was withdrawing from the race.
Democrats rejoiced in the ensuing chaos. There was reportedly crying in the halls of Congress. And 2016 contenders even offered up their thoughts on successors.
Here are some of the best reactions.
Longtime Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., may have won the Internet when he posted his reaction to learning about McCarthy's withdrawal. You see, he was just making himself a healthful fruit smoothie when he made the obvious connection between his afternoon beverage and the predicament House GOP leaders found themselves in.
Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., also had his priorities when it came to food.
Washington Post's Robert Costa reported on what Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., told him about the emotions inside the room. And we don't think he was talking about the clothing store.
This one was pretty much the reaction in the NPR newsroom, too.
Winter is coming, House Republicans.
If not Donald Trump for speaker, then Trump's daughter for speaker.
Chris Matthews never disappoints with the very, um, vivid imagery.
Meanwhile, Democrats are trolling hard.
Reactions from political observers
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst and professor based at USC, said on KPCC's Take Two that she had "whiplash from the announcement."
Jeffe said McCarthy likely understands that he was not the right person to secure the 218 votes needed to unite the Republican Caucus:
"He's not the right person I think partially because who in their right mind would want to be speaker of the House of Representatives right now? Number one. Number two, he's made some major gaffes recently."
Jeffe said the obvious choice to replace Boehner would be Rep. Paul Ryan but that he has repeatedly said he would not seek the nomination:
"The one name I've heard out here from California Republicans is Ed Royce who is a senior Republican member of the House and is well-respected. But I don't see how that works in the real world. Unless you are the heir apparent, as McCarthy seemed to be, the House will vote for anybody but California."
KQED reporter Marisa Lagos noted on Take Two that McCarthy may have been nothing more than a default choice, anyway:
"You know he's been the No. 2 in the House. He was sort of the heir apparent. He does come from a fairly conservative background, so I think there was hope that he would be able to sort of unite the Tea Partiers and others who have really held a lot of legislation hostage and made John Boehner's leadership so difficult. And again there was sort of a lack of another obvious choice. And maybe that's the biggest reason."
Lagos said that with so much in flux, "there's a good chance that John Boehner's retirement might be pushed back."
Shawn Steele, Republican National Committee member from California, expressed his excitement on KPCC's AirTalk:
"This is a great time to be alive! Who would've guessed that Boehner would've dropped out, or the Russians would've moved into Syria, or that Trump would've even run? I guarantee you, what's gonna happen in the next 10 days will surprise both you and me."
Steele said the next speaker would need to be a good communicator.
"In the next several days, we're going to see several major contenders, major contenders that we haven't really paid much attention to before and a whole new exciting campaign," he said.
Judson Philips, founder of Tea Party Nation, spoke on AirTalk about the need to unite the caucus:
"The big thing that has the base so angry, and by extension a lot of the members of the House Freedom Caucus, is that the Republican Party — the Republican candidates — when they're on the campaign trail talk a great game. They promise a lot of things, and when they go to Washington, they don't deliver. In fact, a lot of times they won't even get in a fight."
— KPCC staff
This story has been updated.