WASHINGTON -- House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) sparked shock, tears and chaos in the GOP Thursday by declaring he was withdrawing his name from the election to replace House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), just moments before the party was supposed to vote.
McCarthy was the strong front-runner for the position, but pulled his candidacy when it was clear he could not get enough conservative supporters to reach 218 votes -- the number needed to ensure election on the House floor in two weeks, when Democrats would also vote.
Boehner, who has said he will resign from Congress at the end of the month, summed up the feelings of his soon-to-be-former colleagues in one line: "Well, that was a surprise."
Others were more blunt.
"I think we're all in shock," Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.) said.
"We're stunned. His strongest supporters were stunned," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus that opposed McCarthy. "His strongest supporters were crying," he added, saying the sudden announcement was emblematic of the House Republican Conference.
"It's run with chaos, it's seat of the pants, there's no long-term plans and there's no principles," he said. "What was the principle here? The only principle here was I can't get 218."
McCarthy seemed to realize the effect his withdrawal would have.
"I think I shocked some of you," he told reporters afterward.
The California lawmaker would have easily defeated his challengers in the conference vote, but he said that was not good enough.
"For us to unite, we probably need a fresh face," he said.
"I don't want to make voting for speaker a tough one. 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 if we have 247 votes on the floor," referring to the number of Republicans in the House. "If we are going to be strong, we've got to be 100 percent united."
The conference has not been united all year, ever since 25 members voted against Boehner during speaker elections at the start of the session. And many of those same conservatives have forced Boehner to withdraw or alter legislation that in the past Republican leaders could have easily forced through Congress.
But the conference these days appears more like European lawmakers trying to form a parliamentary coalition. In Europe, if a center-right party fails to reach agreement with an ultra-right party, it searches elsewhere in the center for a small party to align with. Boehner had to do that recently to pass a so-called continuing resolution to keep the government open, getting just a third of his members to vote for the current federal funding that lasts only until Dec. 11. Boehner needed votes from Democrats to help pass that measure.
One of the GOP moderates Boehner turned to for support, Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), predicted more of the same, and suggested Republicans may even have to rely on Democrats to help pick a speaker.
"Everybody knows we need to assemble a bipartisan coalition -- just last week on the CR," Dent said. "I suspect at some point, if we can't get 218 Republicans to vote for a speaker candidate, we'll have to assemble a bipartisan coalition to elect a speaker."
He blamed members of the Freedom Caucus. "I said before John Boehner stepped down, those who wanted to take down John Boehner will try to frag the next guy. Well, that's what we just saw happen," Dent said.
Boehner announced in late September that he would retire from Congress at the end of this month. On Thursday, he told the conference the election for the Republican candidate for the next speaker had been postponed.
McCarthy said he would stay on as majority leader. Because he was elected to a two-year term, there will be no vacancy -- and therefore no election -- for the majority leader position. That means Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) cannot run for leader, so the whip position will not be open unless he runs for speaker.
Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) all quickly said on Thursday that they were not interested in running for speaker. Regardless, McCarthy and others kept pushing Ryan to run.
McCarthy has been haunted by recent comments in which he praised the House Select Committee on Benghazi for hurting Hillary Clinton politically.
"That wasn't helpful. I could've said it much better," McCarthy said Thursday, adding that the comments had become a "distraction from the committee" and had factored into his decision not to run for speaker.
Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) have also been in the race for speaker. The Freedom Caucus, with several dozen members, endorsed Webster on Wednesday, all but guaranteeing McCarthy couldn't get the 218 votes.
"I think the Freedom Caucus just wanted to move the country in the best direction possible for America, and I believe that coincided, ironically, directly, with Kevin McCarthy's own agenda," said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), one of its members.
Chaffetz said what happened was "stunning" and a lot of discussion still needs to take place, but he thinks he has an opening.
"I don't know if I'm the right person," Chaffetz told reporters. "I put my name in the hat because I do want to unite this party internally."
And plenty of Republicans welcomed the crisis.
"This is a terrific thing for the party. This opens the whole party. When things are closed and set, that's when you don't have strength," Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) said. "When it's open and vibrant is when you can go out and win."
A new date for a speaker election was not immediately announced. Webster's supporters said his Freedom Caucus support immediately made him the front-runner.
Jennifer Bendery and Elise Foley contributed reporting.
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