WASHINGTON — Rep. Kevin McCarthy on Thursday abruptly took himself out of the race to succeed John A. Boehner as House speaker, apparently undone by the same forces that drove Boehner to resign.
“I have the deepest respect and regard for each member of the conference and our team as a whole,” McCarthy said in a prepared statement shortly after a meeting in which he told Republicans of 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. 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.”
McCarthy’s candidacy was damaged when he suggested in an interview on Fox News last week that the House committee investigating Benghazi had the political aim of damaging Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. He acknowledged that his remarks about Benghazi had factored into his decision.
As shocked members left the meeting there was a sense of total disarray, with no clear path forward and no set date for a new vote. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said that in dropping out of race, McCarthy said, “I’m not the one to unify the party.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who challenged McCarthy for the speaker’s chair, said he was “absolutely stunned” by his decision.
“Our conference is going to have to do a lot of soul searching,” he said.
Chaffetz said he was still a candidate for speaker.
A group of about 40 hard-line House conservatives announced Wednesday night that they would support Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida, making it unclear whether McCarthy, who is from California, could assemble the 218 votes on the floor that he would need to be elected later this month.
McCarthy’s decision put the House of Representatives into a state of disarray just days from the first and most serious of a series of fiscal deadlines.
The Treasury Department has said it will exhaust its authority to borrow money to fund the government Nov. 5. If Congress does not raise or suspend the government’s statutory borrowing limit, the government would default on its debt days later, risking economic chaos, soaring interest rates and plunging stock prices.
Then, a stopgap spending bill expires Dec. 11. Without congressional action, much of the government will shut down.
Rep. David Jolly, R-Fla., a member of the far right, which opposed McCarthy, was asked how the party could unify.
“It’s going to take a hard family conversation,” he said.
Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who had been set to officially nominate McCarthy, said, “Kevin McCarthy is the best person to lead the House, and so I’m disappointed in this decision.”
Many Republicans would like to see Ryan make a run for the speaker’s job, but Thursday he said he would not.
“Now it is important that we, as a conference, take time to deliberate and seek new candidates for the speakership,” he said. “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. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., echoed the sentiments of many who have been leading the revolt in the party when he said, “We’re looking for a speaker who works with the conservatives, not against us.”
At the White House, officials said they were surprised by what a spokesman repeatedly called the “chaos” playing out inside the House Republican conference.
“It certainly is easy to poke fun at the chaos,” said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary.
Earnest urged Republicans in the chamber to find a way to rein in its most conservative members. The Republicans, he said, should “either tame the forces of that small but vocal group of extreme ideologues, or buck up the mainstream — or at least more mainstream — majority within the House Republican conference.”
Earnest expressed the administration’s hope that the leadership drama in the House would not make it more difficult for lawmakers to raise the nation’s debt ceiling by early November.
“That is the responsibility of members of Congress,” he said, noting that lawmakers have raised the debt ceiling several times since 2011. “We are hopeful that in spite of this chaos, Republicans and Democrats in the House will do the same thing again,” he said.