Shortly after Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy stunned Washington with another development in the race for speaker of the House – the front-runner announced Thursday that he was dropping out – names of new candidates began circulating.
Inevitably, the chatter quickly reached Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin – former vice presidential candidate, chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and budget hawk who many members believe is the person most capable of uniting the deeply divided and turbulent House Republican conference.
But Chairman Ryan promptly put down this second attempt to draft him. As his Texan GOP colleague, Rep. Blake Farenthold tweeted:
Can you blame him? The speakership is one of the toughest jobs in Washington – especially this speakership, which is tasked with trying to end or contain a Republican civil war in the chamber.
“It’s going to take a lot of gumption and a lot of finesse and talent to bridge the gap. So yeah, it’s a difficult chore that very few people are willing to take on,” Rep. Harold Rogers (R) of Kentucky told a scrum of reporters Thursday afternoon.
Just hours earlier, majority leader McCarthy, an affable Californian known for his listening skills and outreach, capitulated in the face of revolt from the hard-line House Freedom Caucus. Its 40 or so members were set to vote against him in secret balloting.
His unscripted comments about the political nature of the Benghazi special committee, which is calling Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to testify later this month, also played a role in his decision, he said. McCarthy was attacked from all sides for that comment, from Democrats, Republicans, and the media, when he was tagged as a future speaker who can’t speak.
McCarthy was likely to survive the hard-liner defection Thursday, and win the majority support from his GOP conference needed to nominate him for the speakership. But it was not at all clear that he could win the 218 votes needed to elect the speaker on the House floor later this month.
Standing before cameras in the brightly lit marbled lobby of the Longworth House Office Building, his wife beside him, the leader capitulated. “We need a new face.… If we're going to be strong, we gotta be 100 percent united," he said.
“There’s too much anger,” McCarthy told Congressman Rogers, after taking himself out of the running at the closed-door balloting session, according to Roll Call. The Washington Post reported members crying at the news.
“Who knows what’ll happen. People are crying, they don’t have any idea how this will unfold, at all,” Rep. Peter King (R) of New York, told the Post.
What most people see of the speakership is what shows up on television. But the job carries awesome responsibility: second in line to the presidency, manager of the Capitol complex, presiding officer of the House. And that’s the easy part.
Then there’s the role of chief messenger of your party, shaping the agenda, and trying to keep your members in line every day to cross the 218-vote threshold – the number of votes it takes to pass a bill in the 435-member body. And don’t forget incessant fundraising, which takes up most weekends. Oh, and negotiating with the White House and Senate.
Then add the “hell no” caucus of 40 to 50 right-wingers to this mix.
The hard-liners drove Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio to announce his early retirement for Oct. 30. In light of the decision of his No. 2 to withdraw, Speaker Boehner says he will stay on “until the House votes to elect a new speaker.” McCarthy says he is willing to stay on as leader. No date has been set for another leadership election.
Some Republicans want Boehner to finish out his term as a congressman and speaker.
“It’s a very difficult job and having someone like John Boehner there who has a lot of experience and has the courage to do what’s right … is a good thing,” says Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R) of Florida.
Congressman Curbelo, who describes the speakership as “more difficult than being the president,” says he doesn’t see any candidate from either party able to get 218 votes.
That hasn’t stopped new names from being floated, even while the other two candidates – Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida, backed by the Freedom Caucus, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee – kept their hats in the ring.
Right-wingers were pleased to see McCarthy drop out. They see him as "Boehner 2.0." In a statement, the Freedom Caucus said it respects his decision to "put the conference ahead of himself" and said the next speaker "needs to yield back power to the membership."
The Republican caucus is going through a period of transition, says John Feehery, former spokesman to Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois, the longest serving Republican speaker. McCarthy represented a new generation of leaders in the House, where nearly half of the members have served four years or less.
“They’re going to have to chart their own course and they’re going to have to figure out how the House works together, and they’re going to make mistakes," he says.
That’s one way to learn.