Behind Kevin McCarthy’s stunning decision Thursday to end his bid for speaker lay a simple calculation: Even if he could scrape together the 218 votes he needed to win the formal House election later this month, he would begin his term a crippled leader unable to unite a party that he said was “deeply divided.”
The majority leader and presumed successor to John Boehner had been widely expected to win the House GOP’s secret-ballot nomination on Thursday. All he needed was a simple majority of the 247-member caucus, and he easily had the votes over long-shot challengers Jason Chaffetz of Utah or Daniel Webster of Florida, who won the endorsement of the renegade House Freedom Caucus. But even if he’d won on Thursday, McCarthy knew he was still short of the threshold he needed on the floor, knowing that Democrats would vote as a bloc against him.
Conservatives had effectively held McCarthy hostage, just as they had done weeks ago to Boehner: The 30-odd member Freedom Caucus was threatening to block his ascension unless he agreed to empower its members through committee and leadership slots, procedural reforms, and possibly even legislative promises that he would be unable to keep. That dynamic was even more significant that McCarthy’s stumble on Fox News last week, when he suggested that Republicans had created the special committee on Benghazi to bring down Hillary Clinton. But as the chastened majority leader acknowledged Thursday, it “certainly wasn’t helpful.”