Shock! McCarthy drops Speaker bid

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has dropped out of the race for House Speaker, shocking Capitol Hill and raising questions about who can lead the House Republican Conference. 

Republicans were to meet Thursday at noon to elect a new Speaker, following Rep. John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerSpeculation mounts, but Ryan’s job seen as safe Boehner warns Trump: Don't pull out of Korea-US trade deal GOP Rep: Ryan wasting taxpayers dollars by blocking war authorization debate MORE's news that he would retire at the end of the month. Instead, they received the surprising news from McCarthy. 

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"I think I shocked some of you," McCarthy joked to reporters after his bombshell.

He said he would stay on as majority leader, but believed Republicans needed to unify around a "new face."

"I feel good about the decision. I think we're only going to be stronger," he said. 

McCarthy suggested it was unclear whether he could have won the 218 votes on the floor needed to be elected Speaker. 

"I don't want to go to the floor and win with 220 votes," said the California lawmaker, who cast his decision as putting his conference first. "I think best think for our party is to win with 247 votes."

McCarthy was also asked at the brief press conference about a letter this week from Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) that called on any leadership candidate with skeletons in their closet to drop out. Asked if his decision was influenced by that letter, McCarty shook his head no and said, "C'mon, no."
 
McCarthy stunned his his colleagues by telling them of his decision as they were preparing to cast ballots for Speaker. The election was immediately postponed. 

Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) said McCarthy's withdrawal drove some lawmakers to tears.

"The person next to me was crying," he said.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), who has been a fierce critic of the current GOP leadership team, said McCarthy spoke only briefly to the conference. 

"Kevin McCarthy said, 'I am not the one,' and it looks like he's pulling out of the race," he said. 

"He said, 'I'm not the one, I'm not the one that can unite the conference and get to 218."

Huelskamp said McCarthy's supporters "all looked in shock to me."

"They were lined up to give him a hug," he said. "I saw tears in eyes.

"It's the strangest thing I've seen in a long time."

Rooney held out some long-shot hope that McCarthy could be persuaded out of his decision, and said Boehner (R-Ohio) would likely have to stay on longer than expected.

"I hope people can talk some sense into Kevin," said Rooney, a backer of the majority leader.

McCarthy had struggled to win over conservatives, and while he was the favorite to win the closed-door vote, conservatives insisted he did not have the votes on the floor to win election. 

The House Freedom Caucus, a 40-plus group of conservative lawmakers, endorsed Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) on Thursday for the Speakership. A third Republican, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (Utah), also had challenged McCarthy for the position. Neither Chaffetz nor Webster, however, were seen as having the support McCarthy was expected to gain.

McCarthy had also been hurt by remarks he made on Fox last week in which he linked the House Benghazi panel to Hillary Clinton's presidential poll numbers. The comments suggested a political motive behind the panel, and forced an apology from McCarthy.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) said he believes the move is "absolutely" the result of those comments.
 
Chaffetz, speaking after McCarthy, said he was stunned by the news.
 
"What he did was tough," Chaffetz said of McCarthy.
 
But the Utah Republican acknowledged he might not be able to build a coalition for Speaker either. "I'm not sure if I'm the right person," Chaffetz said.
 
It's not clear what will happen next, though Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) said he could see five or six new candidates step up to run for Speaker after McCarthy's stunner.   

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, is perhaps the most respected man in his conference and has long been seen as a possible Speaker. 

But he quickly took himself out of the running, saying after McCarthy's decision he did not want the job.

"Kevin McCarthy is best person to lead the House, and so I’m disappointed in this decision," said Ryan, who nominated his longtime friend.

"Now it is important that we, as a Conference, take time to deliberate and seek new candidates for the speakership," he continued. "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.”

Another possible candidate could be Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the chairman of the House panel investigating the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. Chaffetz and others sought to convince Gowdy to run last week, but he declined. 

Asked after the McCarthy news if he would run for Speaker, Gowdy responded with an emphatic "no." 
 
One lawmaker floated senior Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) for Speaker. Cole, the lawmakers said, is viewed on Capitol Hill as a voice of reason — though conservatives would see him as similar to Boehner or McCarthy. 

Others said it is possible the House could look for a "caretaker" Speaker who could take the chamber beyond next year's election. 

Rohrabacher said members are already discussing such a situation.
 
"We just need to get through the next election and then determine what our goals are," he said, floating senior members such as Cole, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (Ky.) and Texas Rep. Joe Barton.
 
"We need someone just to lead our party, get the basics done, while the American people decide," he said.
 
Boehner announced his resignation as Speaker two weeks ago and is set to leave at the end of October, but Thursday's news raises questions over whether he can keep to that schedule. 
 
Boehner in a statement said that he "will serve as Speaker until the House votes to elect a new Speaker."
 
—Cristina Marcos, Alexander Bolton, Bernie Becker and Sarah Ferris contributed.