WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) summed up the feelings of his soon-to-be-former colleagues in one line: “Well, that was a surprise.”

He then moved to adjourn the meeting that had been called to elect a new speaker, a vote that was presumed to be a lock for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). Instead, McCarthy had used his time before the GOP conference to say he was withdrawing his name.

“He asked for the floor, and it was a two-minute speech,” said Rep. Robert Pittinger (R-N.C.). “He said the country is asking for a new face, new leadership, and he said I’m going to pull out. I’m not the right person for this job. I think we’re all in shock.”

McCarthy would have easily defeated his challengers in the conference vote, but still needed 218 votes on the House floor. Typically, whomever a majority party nominates to be speaker gets the near-unanimous support of that party’s members.

But nothing is typical in this Republican Party, which appears to be more like a group of European lawmakers trying to form a coalition. In Europe, if a center-right party fails to reach agreement with an ultra-right party, it searches elsewhere in the center for a small party to align with. But in the current American system, the only path forward for Republicans is to find a consensus speaker candidate.

None was emerging Thursday, though Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) put his name forward.

“I said before John Boehner stepped down, those who wanted to take down John Boehner will try to take down the next guy. Well, that’s what we just saw happen,” Dent said.

Boehner announced in late September that he would retire from Congress at the end of this month. On Thursday, he told the conference the election for the Republican candidate for the next speaker has been postponed.

“If we are going to unite to be strong, we need a new face to help do that,” McCarthy said at a press conference Thursday afternoon.

McCarthy added that he felt good about the decision and would stay on as majority leader. Because he was elected to a two-year term, there will be no vacancy — and therefore no election — for the majority leader position. That means Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) cannot run for leader, so the whip position will not be open unless he runs for speaker.

GOP Reps. Paul Ryan (Wis.), Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Trey Gowdy (S.C.) all quickly said on Thursday that they were not interested in running for speaker. Regardless, McCarthy kept pushing Ryan to run.

In a statement, McCarthy said it had become clear that House Republicans were divided.

“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.”

McCarthy has been haunted by recent comments in which he praised the House Select Committee on Benghazi for hurting Hillary Clinton politically.

“That wasn’t helpful. I could’ve said it much better,” McCarthy said Thursday, adding that the comments had become a “distraction from the committee” and had factored into his decision not to run for speaker.

Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) were also running for speaker. On Wednesday, the conservative House Freedom Caucus endorsed Webster.

“I think the Freedom Caucus just wanted to move the country in the best direction possible for America, and I believe that coincided, ironically, directly, with Kevin McCarthy’s own agenda,” said Franks, who is a member of the Freedom Caucus.

Plenty of Republicans welcomed the crisis.

“This is a terrific thing for the party. This opens the whole party. When things are closed and trapped, that’s when you don’t have strength,” Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) said.

Jennifer Bendery and Michael McAuliff contributed reporting.


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