WASHINGTON • Mr Kevin McCarthy of California has abruptly withdrawn from the race to succeed Speaker John Boehner, blindsiding his House Republican colleagues and throwing their already tumultuous chamber into deeper chaos with no clear leader in sight just weeks before a series of high-stakes fiscal battles.
As lawmakers on Thursday had barbecued food and sipped sodas during what was expected to be a pro forma vote to select Mr McCarthy as their nominee, he did an about-face, saying he had concluded he could not unite the increasingly fractious Republican majority.
"I am not that guy," said Mr McCarthy, with his wife and family by his side, according to members who were in the room.
HARD TO UNITE REPUBLICAN MAJORITY
I am not that guy.
MR KEVIN MCCARTHY, saying he had concluded he could not unite the House's increasingly fractious Republican majority
Moments later, Mr Boehner, who learnt of Mr McCarthy's decision only minutes before he announced it, declared the vote postponed and the meeting adjourned, even though there were two other candidates in the running, underscoring the weakness of the field.
Some Republicans, including Mr Boehner and Mr McCarthy, are pressing Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the party's nominee for vice-president in 2012, to step up.
But Mr Ryan has repeatedly said he does not want the job, a point he reiterated on Thursday even before his colleagues left the meeting.
Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina said: "I have spent more time trying to talk him into running than I did my wife into marrying me.
"Twenty-six years later, she is still with me. I am just asking Paul for 14 months."
Mr McCarthy's decision leaves the House rudderless just weeks before the Treasury Department faces a debt default that could roil markets, and two months before a deadline for a Budget deal to avoid another government shutdown.
But it also represents another victory for the clutch of unyielding hard-line conservatives who toppled the ambitions of yet another member of the party leadership.
The turmoil in the House only added to the uncertainty for the Republican Party, which is also dealing with a contentious presidential primary campaign in which obstreperous outsiders continue to ride the Tea Party swell against establishment politicians.
While the presidential race has many months to sort itself out, House Republicans have little time to spare to restore order.
After Mr McCarthy's announcement, many visibly shaken and nearly speechless Republicans emerged from a large hearing room in the Capitol complex. The acoustics inside were so poor that some had failed to fully take in what had happened: The man with the most votes to become the next Speaker had just given up on what was once the most desired job in the House.
"The first reaction was 'Wow!' or 'What did he say?' " Representative Jeff Fortenberry for Nebraska's first congressional district said. "The next reaction was: Let me sit down and process this while eating lunch at the same time, because this was a shock, a surprise."
Rather than moving to vote on other announced candidates - Representative Daniel Webster of Florida and Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah - Mr Boehner said the ballot should be postponed. He asked for unanimous consent to adjourn - with no obvious path forward as Congress heads for a week-long recess.
Mr Boehner, who said last month that he would leave at the end of this month after four years of relentless needling from his right flank, issued a less definitive statement on Thursday, saying he would stay in the job until a replacement was chosen "in the coming weeks".
Mr McCarthy's turnaround appeared to stem from his growing realisation over the last 24 hours that while many of his colleagues supported him, he risked a humiliating defeat on the floor.
A group of about 40 hard-right House conservatives announced on Wednesday night that they would support Mr Webster, making it clear that Mr McCarthy would have had to accede to their demands as he struggled to assemble 218 votes over the next three weeks.
While only Republicans choose their nominee, a majority of the whole House, including Democrats, elects the Speaker.
NEW YORK TIMES