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 had 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 Clinton’s poll numbers — was fatally 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.
“I think Kevin McCarthy was doing what he believes was the highest thing for this conference and for America,” said conservative Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.).
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.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) is the top choice of many GOPers 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.”
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), 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 (S.C.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio), head of the Freedom Caucus.
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.”
William Branigan and Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.