In an unexpected move, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the presumed front-runner to succeed John Boehner as House speaker, abruptly withdrew his candidacy Thursday, throwing the process into confusion and the GOP into disarray. McCarthy is said to have told colleagues that he wasn't the right guy for the job at a closed-door meeting before an expected vote of the GOP caucus.
"If we are going to be united and be strong, we need a fresh face," he told reporters at a brief press conference after the meeting. "I feel good about the decision."
He added that his recent comments about a special congressional committee on Benghazi driving down 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's poll numbers were unhelpful in his bid and that he would stay on as majority leader.
McCarthy had been heavily favored to be nominated by his fellow Republicans, but Thursday's secret ballot — even if it had proceeded as expected — still would have been merely an early skirmish in a chaotic battle to lead the House.
The new development comes amid increasing turmoil for House Republicans after Boehner announced late last month that he will resign from Congress, in the face of increasing pressure from the conservative flank of his caucus. McCarthy’s withdrawal leaves Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Daniel Webster of Florida still in the contest.
In a statement, Boehner, who had been expected to leave Congress at the end of the month, said he would stay on until a new speaker was selected.
"As I have said previously, I will serve as speaker until the House votes to elect a new speaker," he said. "I’m confident we will elect a new speaker in the coming weeks."
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said of McCarthy's decision not to run that "the utter chaos of the Republican party must not threaten the full faith and credit of the United States."
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, the former vice presidential nominee who now chairs the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. But Ryan was under intense pressure to reconsider, including from Boehner and McCarthy himself.
As the day began, McCarthy and his two rivals to replace Boehner were to address a meeting of the GOP rank and file in the basement of the Capitol, making final pitches before elections to begin at noon.
Despite his lead over the other candidates, McCarthy had failed to win over a small but crucial bloc in the House GOP: the hard-line 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 McCarthy and instead back Webster, a former speaker of the Florida House.
The decision was a blow to McCarthy. Although there was little expectation that the group would back him, there was much speculation that the sometimes disorganized hard-liners would be unable to rally around any of his opponents.
"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."
Despite the opposition, McCarthy clearly had been expected to emerge the winner Thursday. That would have made him the House GOP nominee for speaker.
The true test will come Oct. 29, when the full House will vote for speaker in open session. With Democrats certain to back House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Republican will need to win at least 218 votes to prevail.
"All members were shocked," Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., told reporters. "[McCarthy] wants to make sure whoever gets to the floor can get 218, and I don't think there was any candidate today who can get to 218."
The White House urged Republicans to consider what was in the best interest of their party and the nation when choosing their next leader, over adherence to conservative ideology.
"The next leader of the Republican Party and the majority of House Republicans will have to decide if they are more interested in isolating themselves from criticism that's vocalized by extreme ideologues or advancing the interests of the American people," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday.
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.
McCarthy's two announced Republican rivals for speaker -- Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Daniel Webster -- lack widespread support among House Republicans, 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.
Al Jazeera and wire services