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House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy Abruptly Withdraws From Speaker Race


Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the forerunner to be the next speaker of the House, removed himself from that race today. He surprised his fellow Republicans and explained his decision to reporters minutes later.


KEVIN MCCARTHY: We probably need a fresh face. I'll 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.

MCEVERS: Domenico Montanaro is NPR's political editor, and he joins me now. Hi, Domenico.


MCEVERS: It sounds like the Republicans did not see this announcement coming. I mean, the scene was described as pandemonium. What happened?

MONTANARO: It was absolutely chaotic, first of all. I mean, some members were reportedly in tears because of that chaos and the lack of direction. But first, let me lay out some of the rules of the game, and then I can explain why McCarthy wound up losing it. You know, he needed a majority of the 248 Republicans who would be voting today - so 125 votes. That, McCarthy had, by all reports.

Darrell Issa from California today - congressman - said that he had 200-plus votes, but that is not enough to be speaker. He would have needed 218 votes, a majority of the House - majority of the whole House, and that election was set to take place at the end of this month.

The problem, though, for McCarthy was that there was this block of 30 to 40 Republicans who he says were locked down and that just didn't - he didn't feel comfortable, he says now, taking up their agenda. And his popularity took a hit after his comments last week about the Benghazi committee, that they had taken a toll on Hillary Clinton. And I think that that made some of these Freedom Caucus members who were looking for someone to articulate their ideological message - made them - gave them some pause after John Boehner and seeing McCarthy thinking, this is not the guy who necessarily can articulate the message we need.

MCEVERS: And as we heard McCarthy say, he will stay on as majority leader. But I mean, there still needs to be a speaker of the House. John Boehner said he would step down by the end of this month. So what happens next?

MONTANARO: Well, this is a completely fluid situation at this point. Right now, we know that there's going to be a delay in the vote. They're searching around to find a new candidate. There's one report out late this afternoon that John Boehner would like it to be Paul Ryan, that he had called him twice today. I spoke to one leadership aid who had said that Paul Ryan would be almost everyone's choice.

And what others have reported as well is that Ryan is the only one, it seems, who could get 218 votes. Here's the problem with that. Paul Ryan came out today and said absolutely no way is he going to run. That means John Boehner would have to stick around. He said he would, and that would certainly delay his early retirement of golf in Florida.

But you know, I think the more the pressure builds on one or two of these particular people, either you see Ryan get in, or you have, like, a caretaker who's bee around for some time step in so they can get it sorted out.

MCEVERS: McCarthy's announcement wasn't expected just like John Boehner's announcement that he would leave wasn't expected. Quickly, can anybody unite this caucus?

MONTANARO: It doesn't appear to be the case. In fact, McCarthy today said that, asked if the House is governable in an interview with Rich Lowry in National Review, he said I don't know; sometimes you just have to hit rock bottom. And that might say it all.

MCEVERS: That's Domenico Montanaro, NPR's political editor. Domenico, thanks so much.

MONTANARO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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