Kevin McCarthy Blinks With Speaker’s Gavel Within Grasp

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (L) speaks as Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) looks on during a press conference after a closed meeting with fellow Republicans, on Capitol Hill, July 28, 2015 in Washington, DC. The House plans to move on Wednesday to extend highway and transit …
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Washington’s political establishment is stunned after Rep. Kevin McCarthy abruptly dropped out of the race for House Speaker. His withdrawal came within minutes of an expected vote by the House Republican conference to nominate him for the Speaker’s chair.

McCarthy’s decision throws the search for a new House Speaker into chaos. It also, temporarily at least, blocks movement on a planned reshuffling of the House Republican leadership team. McCarthy had indicated that he plans to remain as Majority Leader. The next few days, and his explanations for his withdrawal from the Speaker’s race, will determine whether that remains on option.

According to reports on Capitol Hill, McCarthy began Thursday continuing to make his pitch for moving up into the Speaker’s chair. Although the planned conference vote Thursday wasn’t the official election for Speaker, it would have made him the Republican nominee for the office to be filled in a floor vote on October 29th. McCarthy was widely expected to win a majority of Republican Congressmen to secure the nomination.

Something, obviously significant, happened or changed his thinking in the handful of hours between the time McCarthy was making his final pitch to his colleagues and withdrawing from the race.

McCarthy moved to secure support for his campaign for Speaker in the immediate aftermath of Speaker Boehner’s announcement that he would leave Congress at the end of October. McCarthy was widely seen as having the support for the promotion and most political attention was focused on the races for Majority Leader and Majority Whip.

Rep. Walter Jones drew attention on Wednesday, though, with a letter asking all candidates for Speaker to withdraw if there were any scandals or misdeeds in their past that might embarrass the institution if they were made public.

Jones specifically cited the example of Rep. Bob Livingston who was poised to become Speaker but withdrew when rumors of an extramarital affair began circulating. There are rumors on Capitol Hill of a similar nature surrounding Rep. McCarthy, but there are often such rumors that turn out to be groundless.

In light of Jones’ letter, however, McCarthy will certainly face additional questions about his decision to withdraw.

While McCarthy was likely to secure the votes of a majority of the GOP caucus, a sizable block of members, including members of the House Freedom Caucus, had announced plans to support Rep. Daniel Webster, a rival candidate for Speaker. If these members withheld their support from McCarthy during the floor vote on October 29th, McCarthy would likely fall short of the 218 votes he needed to be elected Speaker on the first ballot.

Sources on Capitol Hill have explained that the move by House Freedom Caucus wasn’t directly a challenge to McCarthy’s aspirations to be Speaker, but a bargaining chip to secure his support for a conservative candidate for other Leadership positions and a reform of House rules.

If McCarthy agreed to reform how the House considers legislation, a long-time goal of conservatives and institutional reformers, and supported a credible conservative for House Majority Leader, the caucus would ultimately support McCarthy’s quest for House Speaker.

The most charitable explanation for McCarthy’s abrupt withdrawal is that he was unwilling or unable to make those commitments to reform. Without endorsing those changes, McCarthy wouldn’t have the support of the Freedom Caucus and the vote for Speaker would be thrown into complete chaos at the end of the month.

The only other explanation, then, is more troubling. It is unlikely that Rep. Jones’ letter, sent on the eve of the Republican conference vote, was a random, last-minute act. Whatever rumors exist about McCarthy must be strong or credible enough to warrant such a letter.

It is hard to imagine any other development that, in a matter of hours, could upset an almost theatrical set-piece. McCarthy either, at the last minute, blinked and realized he couldn’t commit to delivering reform or was overtaken by more base personal missteps.

How this question is answered over the next few days will determine whether the House simply elects a new Speaker at the end of the month or a complete overhaul of Republican leadership.