With Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy pulling out of the race for House speaker on Thursday— just as members of his party were meeting to presumably nominate him -- the GOP has been thrown into chaos, as the party grapples with questions over who will lead its deeply divided House caucus.
McCarthy, after all, was the odds-on-favorite to replace Speaker John Boehner, who announced his retirement late last month. And so far, only two candidates – Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Florida Rep. Daniel Webster—have emerged. It’s hardly clear whether Webster, backed by the far-right of his party, or Chaffetz, also considered a long shot, would be able to win enough votes to seal the deal.
The timing could not be worse, as Congress must address the debt limit by Nov. 5 or risk default on the country's debt. Democrats on Thursday pointed to the latest developments as yet another sign of GOP dysfunction and urged lawmakers not to ignore the economic decision deadlines that are fast approaching.
Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer said, "With Speaker Boehner resigning last month and Leader Cantor losing his primary election last year, this is just the latest chapter in the history of an extreme wing of the Republican party controlling their conference." Similarly, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said, "Republican chaos is likely to get worse before it gets better, but the economic livelihood of the American people should not be threatened as a result of Republicans' inability to govern.”
But partisan spin and Democratic schadenfreude aside, what's next for the splintered GOP? Can anyone unite the establishment and Tea Party wings of this fractured caucus?
Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who was also considered a top pick to run for speaker, seems like an obvious choice. But he said after McCarthy’s surprise announcement that he would still not make a bid for the speakership.
"Kevin McCarthy is best person to lead the House, and so I’m disappointed in this decision. Now it is important that we, as a Conference, take time to deliberate and seek new candidates for the speakership,” said Ryan. “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.”
Meanwhile, Boehner said in a statement that he'll continue to serve as speaker until the House selects someone to replace him. "We will announce the date for this election at a later date, and I’m confident we will elect a new Speaker in the coming weeks. Our conference will work together to ensure we have the strongest team possible as we continue to focus on the American people’s priorities," said the Ohio lawmaker. Boehner consequently cancelled a scheduled appearance Thursday on "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon," and is reportedly privately urging Ryan to reconsider and run for speaker.
Webster – who is being backed by the House Freedom Caucus, a group of about 40 hard-line conservatives -- told reporters that he was shocked by McCarthy's announcement and that he didn't know if the majority leader's decision to step aside would necessarily help Webster's own chances.
“You don't know about the dynamics of things. You're in this race and there's two candidates, then all of sudden there were three, and that changes the dynamics but you don't know how. And now there's two again — maybe more. So I have no idea," said Webster.
McCarthy himself cited divisions within his party as the reason for his decision. “It is imperative for us to unite and work together on the challenges facing our country. Over the last week it has become clear to me that our Conference is deeply divided and needs to unite behind one leader," McCarthy said in a statement. "I have always put this Conference ahead of myself. Therefore I am withdrawing my candidacy for Speaker of the House. I look forward to working alongside my colleagues to help move our Conference’s agenda and our country forward.”
House Republicans had scheduled a meeting on Thursday afternoon to nominate a candidate to replace Boehner. Now, the contest has been postponed.
McCarthy, who is Boehner’s deputy, was seen as a natural pick to take over. But he has come under fire recently for suggesting the GOP-led investigation into the 2012 Benghazi attack was political in nature, even bragging that Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers were taking a hit because of it.
McCarthy was easily expected to get the 125 votes (out of 247 House Republicans) during a closed door, secret ballot session to win the GOP nod on Thursday. The bigger question was if he would be able to win the necessary 218 votes during a final, public session in the House chamber on Oct. 29 to secure the speakership.
So far, reaction that McCarthy was pulling the plug on his speakership bid has been mixed from GOP presidential candidates. Republican front-runner Donald Trump, a critic of the GOP establishment, tweeted, "Great, Kevin McCarthy drops out of SPEAKER race. We need a really smart and really tough person to take over this very important job!" Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said at an event in Iowa that while he was surprised by the decision, he wasn't going to insert himself into conversation about the pending vote. But he did praise Webster and said other candidates would likely emerge. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson on CNN offered McCarthy "kudos for putting others before himself" -- and said that while he likes Webster, Chaffetz and Ryan, he hopes the latest development will bring in more names to the nominating process.