WASHINGTON, DC, USA – Conservative US Republicans drove frontrunner Kevin McCarthy out of the race to be the next speaker of the House Thursday, plunging their party into disarray and triggering a mad scramble to find the chamber's next leader.
The political pandemonium set off by McCarthy's announcement – which appeared to take most lawmakers by complete surprise – comes as Congress must dig into crucial federal budget and debt ceiling battles, when a speaker's firm hand at the tiller might be most needed.
The 50-year-old Californian, who as majority leader has built connections among conservatives and moderates alike, fell victim to an intense right-flank revolt as he sought the role that would have placed him immediately behind the vice president in the line of presidential succession.
Lawmakers were sure he had the votes to win Thursday's Republican election, but most likely not the 218 necessary for an outright majority in the full 435-seat House of Representatives.
McCarthy, the party's number two in the House behind outgoing speaker John Boehner, said he would stay on as majority leader.
"But the one thing I found in talking to everybody – if we are going to unite and be strong, we need a new face to help do that," McCarthy told reporters after announcing his decision at a party meeting where the vote was to occur.
The House leadership subsequently postponed the party election, without setting a new date.
Boehner had announced October 29 for the full vote on the House floor to choose the new speaker, but McCarthy's withdrawal potentially puts that scheduling in doubt.
It also intensifies a battle for the direction of the Republican Party as its presidential candidates seek to reclaim the White House in 2016 after 8 years under Democrat Barack Obama.
Seeking to calm the waters after McCarthy's exit, Boehner – who announced his resignation last month, effective October 30 – issued a statement saying he would stay on "until the House votes to elect a new speaker."
Ahead of McCarthy's withdrawal, about 40 hardline conservatives known as the House Freedom Caucus pledged to oppose him, raising the prospect that he would be forced to offer them major concessions.
"He said he didn't think he is the right man to be the face of the party," said conservative congressman Walter Jones.
In an interview after his announcement, McCarthy told Politico that the caucus needed a leader who could unite all 247 Republicans in the chamber.
"And I was never going to be able to get 247," he said.
The Republican caucus has been bitterly divided, with staunch conservatives demanding a greater say for rank-and-file members in the legislative process and in leadership.
Having forced Boehner out, the right flank was on the warpath, potentially ready to oust any establishment leader from the race.
"I had a lot of friends that were really supportive that said, 'Why do you want to do it during this time?... They're going to eat you and chew you up,'" McCarthy told Politico.
Moderates were quick to blame uncompromising conservatives for the chaos.
"At some point we have to marginalize the rejectionist members of the conference," congressman Charlie Dent said.
With McCarthy withdrawing, the race was on to find a replacement candidate who could unify the fractured Republicans.
Little-known congressman Daniel Webster, who was endorsed by the Freedom Caucus, and relative newcomer Jason Chaffetz, were the only two officially left in the race, but few lawmakers expressed confidence that either could muster sufficient support.
Eyes on Ryan
Ways and Means Committee chairman Paul Ryan, the vice presidential nominee in 2012, has credibility among all Republican House factions. But he reiterated Thursday that he would not seek the speaker's gavel.
"Kevin McCarthy is the best person to lead the House," he said in a statement immediately after McCarthy's announcement.
Ryan momentum appeared to be growing, however, amid reports Boehner himself was now urging him to run.
"I think there's probably going to be pressure on him," House Appropriations Committee chairman Hal Rogers told AFP.
Congresswoman Kristi Noem added that Ryan or Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House committee investigating the Benghazi attacks of 2012, were the best options to unite the conference.
Gowdy repeatedly told reporters Thursday he had no interest in being speaker.
House Republicans were expected to huddle Friday morning in a closed-door meeting.
Democrats warned that their Republican rivals needed to act swiftly to end the uncertainty.
"The utter chaos of the Republican party must not threaten the full faith and credit of the United States," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, referring to the debt ceiling that the US Treasury says must be raised by November 5.
Congress also must craft a budget agreement before December 11 or risk a government shutdown. – Michael Mathes, AFP/Rappler.com