WASHINGTON—With no warning, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy withdrew Thursday from the contest for speaker of the U.S. House, shocking fellow Republicans just before voting was to begin and plunging Congress’s GOP leadership into chaos.
Lawmakers said they were thunderstruck and in disbelief following McCarthy’s announcement, which came moments after they had shown up for an election nearly certain to end with McCarthy as their pick for speaker.
“I have never seen anything like this,” said Rep. Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania. Said Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina: “We don’t know why he did it.”
The election was postponed, as may be the scheduled Oct. 29 vote for speaker by the full House, Democrats as well as Republicans.
What happens next is unknown. McCarthy was by far the heavy favorite to replace Speaker John Boehner, who announced under pressure from conservatives that he would resign at the end of the month. Congress is facing major budget deadlines and fiscal decisions.
The other two Republican candidates for speaker—Reps. Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Daniel Webster of Florida—lack widespread support in the House GOP, although Webster has the backing of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus.
But Thursday’s secret ballot—even if it had proceeded as expected—still would have been merely an early skirmish in the chaotic battle to lead the House. It was to have been followed by the vote in the full House where the Freedom Caucus could have blocked McCarthy’s ascent.
It wasn’t clear when the elections would be rescheduled, or if McCarthy, a 50-year-old Californian, would stay on as majority leader.