Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy abruptly ended his bid Thursday to be the next House speaker, shocking GOP colleagues who walked into a noon meeting expecting to coronate him as their pick, and instead walked out amid chaos, leaving the party rudderless as it stumbles toward a series of major policy showdowns.
Current Speaker John A. Boehner, who’d planned to step down October 29, said he’ll stay until a successor is approved, and some of his colleagues hinted that with no clear favorite in sight, the Ohio Republican might remain for months yet.
But as a lame duck, it’s not clear how Mr. Boehner and his team will be able to move forward with major negotiations over the budget, the debt limit and a new Pacific trade deal that will require approval from Capitol Hill.
“This is new territory,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Illinois Republican. “We make history every day — not in a good way.”
Mr. McCarthy announced his decision to back out of the race at a meeting of the House GOP. Just hours before, he’d addressed a smaller group of Republicans and had seemed committed to the race, participants said.
That made his withdrawal all the more stunning, and speculation over the reasons ran from recent gaffes to potential skeletons in his background to simple math: While he had the support of a majority of House Republicans, he did not have enough backing to get the 218 votes he would have needed when the full House — including Democrats — was slated to vote on October 29.
Mr. McCarthy told colleagues he was damaged by his stumble last week, when he appeared to ascribe political motives to the House’s select committee probing the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi.
“If I can’t unite everybody, it’s better to find somebody else,” the California Republican told reporters afterward. He retains the majority leader’s spot, though GOP aides were wondering if he would be able to keep it.
Some lawmakers immediately turned to Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee who masterminded this year’s push for free trade negotiating powers, as the only possible choice for speaker now. But Mr. Ryan rejected that, saying he doesn’t want the job.
After Mr. McCarthy’s withdrawal, Mr. Boehner canceled Thursday’s vote, giving the GOP time to regroup and for other candidates to emerge.
Some Republicans are trying to recruit a caretaker speaker who could serve for now, with the understanding that a more permanent person would be chosen either next year or in early 2017, after the next presidential election.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who is one of those involved in the negotiations, said the McCarthy move showed “the utter chaos of the Republican Party” — but said the GOP needs to get its act together quickly if it is to handle a debate over raising the government’s debt limit.
“Responsible Republican leaders should bring a clean debt ceiling increase to the floors of the House and Senate immediately and let it pass with a bipartisan coalition, as it certainly would,” the Nevada Democrat 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.”
At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest said the GOP’s problem lies with a band of conservatives who put “their own extreme ideology ahead of everything else.”
“Somebody among the House Republicans will have to step forward and demonstrate an ability to either tame the forces of that, again, small-but-vocal group of extreme ideologues, or buck up the mainstream — or at least more mainstream majority within the House Republican conference,” Mr. Earnest said.
Mr. McCarthy had two announced GOP challengers — Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida — and they said they would remain in the race to succeed him.
“This conference will have to do some deep soul-searching,” Mr. Chaffetz said. “I do think it is time for a fresh start. That was the whole genesis for my campaign.”
Mr. Webster, who earned the backing of the Freedom Caucus, a group of very conservative House Republicans, said he went into the meeting knowing he didn’t have the votes to win, but was stunned when Mr. McCarthy backed out.
“I think there’s a real desire for us to come together and be a group,” he said.
Other Republicans eyeing a run, according to members, include Reps. Pete Sessions and K. Michael Conway, both of Texas; Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon; Rep. Peter J. Roskam of Illinois; Reps. Lynn A. Westmoreland and Tom Price, both of Georgia; and current Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who’s the third-ranking Republican, just behind Mr. McCarthy.
Mr. Westmoreland said whoever wins the gavel will be the one the various factions within the GOP coalesce behind “organically.” He also said that the next speaker wouldn’t win by appeasing conservatives who repeatedly push for a government shutdown in confrontations with the White House.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of shutting down the government. It’s a matter of listening to people,” Mr. Westmoreland said.
Rep. Devin Nunes, meanwhile, said only Mr. Ryan can bring that kind of unity.
“He’s really the only one that can do the job,” the California Republican said.
Mr. Ryan, however, has repeatedly said he doesn’t want the job right now. He previously had said that the demands of the speakership and travel would make him miss too much time with his young children at home. But on Thursday, in his statement, he focused on his current job as the chief of the tax law committee.
“Kevin McCarthy is the best person to lead the House, and so I’m disappointed in this decision,” 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.”
Mr. Boehner announced late last month that he would retire from Congress at the end of October, after nearly nine years at the helm of the House GOP, and nearly five years as speaker, which is the top constitutional post on Capitol Hill.
During that time he oversaw a shift as House Democrats became more liberal, House Republicans became more conservative, and leaders ceded some of the tools — such as earmark spending — that used to help them enforce party discipline.
With the House bordering at times on ungovernable, Mr. Boehner said it was time for someone else to take the reins.
Mr. McCarthy, who took over as majority leader last year, was the obvious successor, and moved quickly to line up supporters. But a cadre of conservatives had said he was too closely tied to the current leadership team that had disappointed them on issues such as immigration, Obamacare and Planned Parenthood spending, and they said they couldn’t support him, either in the closed-door meeting or on the floor later this month.
Mr. McCarthy had enough support to win the GOP nomination Thursday, but without conservatives he could not have reached the 218 votes needed to claim the speakership. Not even a last-minute endorsement from former Vice President Dick Cheney was able to help him.
It was unclear what, exactly, pushed Mr. McCarthy from the race in the end.
“I don’t know if he lost support because of Benghazi. I don’t know if folks were getting calls back home, and they called him and said, ‘Look, I can’t support you anymore because I’m getting these calls back home.’ I honestly don’t know,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, South Carolina Republican. “I talked to Kevin 20 minutes before he walked into that room, and I had no idea what was going to happen.”
Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican, had written a letter a day earlier warning the candidates to bow out if they had any skeletons in their closet, saying it would be embarrassing to the GOP if they had to resign later.
Mr. Jones pointed to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who resigned after devastating results in the 1998 election and a year after an ethics investigation dinged him on financial arrangements surrounding a book deal, and former Rep. Bob Livingston, who was slated to succeed Mr. Gingrich but who dropped out after admitting an extramarital affair at a time when House Republicans were pursuing impeachment against President Clinton.
The Associated Press reported that when he was asked if the letter played a role in his decision, Mr. McCarthy said: “Nah.”
Conservatives said they weren’t claiming a victory in Mr. McCarthy’s decision. Instead, they’d expected him to come to them to try to negotiate for their support, engaging in the same kind of wheeling and dealing for votes that the next speaker will also need to do on major legislation.
“We’re looking for a speaker who works with conservatives rather than against us,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, Kansas Republican.