CAPITOL HILL - A throng of reporters was waiting at noon Thursday on the first floor of the Longworth House Office building for someone to come out of a closed door meeting and announce that Republicans had chosen highly favored candidate Kevin McCarthy to be their nominee for the next speaker of the House.
But instead of that happening, freshman Republican Rep. Ryan Costello sent shock waves around Capitol Hill and beyond when he came out of the room and said Majority Leader McCarthy had just taken himself out of the race to replace outgoing Speaker John Boehner. Costello appeared stunned, saying at first he thought McCarthy might have been joking.
Conservative member Trent Franks told VOA that Boehner appeared visibly surprised by McCarthy’s quitting the race. Franks noted McCarthy said he took himself out of the running “for the good of the country.”
WATCH: McCarthy speaks about his decision
Other Republican members then emerged from the meeting, telling reporters the whole room of the caucus sat in stunned silence after McCarthy’s short announcement, and that some members started to cry.
A short time later, McCarthy himself emerged, confirming that the news was true. He said he is not the one to unite Republicans.
"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," he said.
McCarthy dismissed a question about personal indiscretions being the reason for his unexpected turnaround.
Budget analyst Stan Collender told VOA the problem for House Republicans is there simply may not be any one face the fractured party could get behind to be their next leader.
Collender said it is conceivable House Republicans might have to act much like their colleagues in European parliamentary democracies and turn to House Democrats to ask them for help in choosing a leader.
Boehner postponed the vote for new leaders on the House floor, and he said he would stay on as speaker until a new speaker is chosen. Ironically, Boehner, who abruptly announced his resignation late last month, had recently joked with reporters that he had a nightmare he was a “prisoner,” kept from leaving his speaker job.
Late Wednesday, members of the hardline House Freedom Caucus announced they would vote as a bloc against McCarthy, voting instead for conservative challenger Daniel Webster.
Most analysts say McCarthy likely realized sometime Thursday that the 40 hardline members likely would be able to keep him from getting the 218 Republican votes needed for him to be elected speaker on the House floor, and he wanted to spare himself the humiliation.
Typically, during a vote for speaker, Democrats would vote for their own candidate, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Republicans would unite behind their candidate. But the Freedom Caucus has made normal operating procedures in the House difficult.
Many think that is the reason Boehner abruptly resigned just days before a deadline to fund the federal government. Boehner had faced drama, showdowns and clashes with hardline members many times over the past five years, just barely averting a default on the national debt in 2011, and triggering a government shutdown in 2013.
The other candidate still left in the race is Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who said he did not see McCarthy’s decision coming. Chaffetz also said he did not know, however, if he could get 218 Republican members to line up to support him.
Webster is considered a long shot, as he is a favorite of the Freedom Caucus, though he is not popular among the “establishment” or more moderate majority of House Republicans.
Collender said the chaos among House Republicans could have serious consequences because Congress needs to act to raise the debt ceiling in early November and to fund the federal government again by December 11.
He said the problem is that establishment Republicans, like Boehner and McCarthy, have refused to reach across the aisle to Democrats to get legislation passed. Collender said if they did that, they could isolate the 40 or so Freedom Caucus members, who used to be referred to as Tea Party Republicans.
It is not clear when elections for new leadership in the House will take place. The House will be in recess next week.
Reacting to the news, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the action on Thursday revealed a rupture within the Republican Party.
A number of Republican lawmakers said they would like to see Rep. Paul Ryan be the next speaker, but Ryan himself has repeatedly said he does not want the job.