By ERICA WERNER, AP Congressional Correspondent
WASHINGTON (AP) — Confronting insurmountable obstacles, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy suddenly withdrew from the contest for speaker of the U.S. House on Thursday, shocking colleagues just before they were to vote and producing ever-deeper chaos for a divided Congress.
“We need a new face,” McCarthy declared after a closed-door meeting where House Republicans were prepared to nominate him as speaker but instead listened in disbelief as he took himself out of the running. “If we are going to be strong, we’ve got to be 100 percent united.”
Allies said that even though he would certainly have emerged the winner from Thursday’s secret-ballot election of Republicans, McCarthy had concluded he did not have a path to getting the needed 218-vote majority in the full House later this month. A small but determined bloc of conservatives had announced they were opposing him, and they commanded enough votes to block him on the floor.
These same lawmakers, members of the hardline House Freedom Caucus, pushed outgoing Speaker John Boehner to announce his resignation just two weeks ago by threatening a floor vote on his speakership. Some of them cheered the announcement by Boehner’s No. 2.
“The establishment has lost two speakers in two weeks. K Street must be shaking in their boots. Mitch McConnell must be shaking in his boots, too,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, naming the Republican majority leader of the Senate.
One immediate impact, however, might be to prolong Boehner’s tenure. The Ohio Republican, who had intended to leave Oct. 30, said he would stay on “until the House votes to elect a new speaker.”
The man most widely seen as a potential speaker in McCarthy’s place immediately ruled it out.
“While I am grateful for the encouragement I’ve received, I will not be a candidate,” said Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the former vice presidential nominee who now chairs the Ways and Means Committee. But Ryan was under intense pressure to reconsider, including from Boehner and McCarthy himself.
“I would hope he would” run, McCarthy said of Ryan.
Establishment-minded Republicans expressed bitter frustration at the sway of the Freedom Caucus at a time when Republicans command their largest House majority in 80 years. And stark uncertainty lies ahead as lawmakers question how any candidate backed by mainstream Republicans will be able to prevail in the House.
It all comes with Congress in desperate need of steady leadership as major fiscal and budgetary deadlines loom, starting with the need to raise the government’s debt limit to avoid a market-shattering default in a month’s time.
“This is unprecedented to have a small group, a tiny minority, hijack the party and blackmail the House,” said Rep. Peter King of New York.
McCarthy might have been able to eke out a win, but he said that’s not how he wanted to become speaker. It’s now unknown when the House GOP election will occur, and in doubt as to whether a scheduled Oct. 29 floor vote by both Democrats and Republicans will go forward.
McCarthy’s two announced GOP rivals for speaker — Reps. Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Daniel Webster of Florida — lack widespread support in the House GOP, although Webster has the backing of the Freedom Caucus, whose members dismissed McCarthy as a clone of Boehner.
Numerous other names began to surface of possible candidates, and lawmakers were openly discussing the possibility of elevating a “caretaker” speaker to serve for a short time.
“You understand it could be a quick end to your political career,” remarked Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., one of those discussed. He held up his cellphone to show calls coming in from McCarthy.
The Republicans’ noontime meeting was adjourned moments after it began with McCarthy making his jaw-dropping announcement as his wife and kids looked on.