WASHINGTON (AP) -- 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' GOP leadership into chaos.
Lawmakers said they were thunderstruck and in disbelief following McCarthy's announcement, which came moments after they had showed 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 hardline House Freedom Caucus.
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House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy
McCarthy abruptly withdraws candidacy for House speaker
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 30: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., leaves the House chamber following a vote on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
US House of Representatives' majority leader Kevin Owen McCarthy speaks during a meeting at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on August 13, 2015. McCarthy is leading 36 US Republican congressmen on a trip to the region to meet IsraelI and Palestinian officials as well as academics and journalists. AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, listens during a news conference after a House Republican Conference meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., Tuesday, July 28, 2015. The U.S. House plans to vote on a three-month highway funding bill Wednesday and leave for a summer break without considering a longer-term measure now before the Senate, Speaker John Boehner said. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
UNITED STATES - JUNE 24: Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, left, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., participate in the House GOP leadership media availability following the House Republican Conference meeting in the Capitol on Wednesday, June 24, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 2: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., arrives to speak to the media following the House Republican Conference meeting in the Capitol on Tuesday, June 2, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
MEET THE PRESS -- Pictured: (l-r) ? Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) appears on 'Meet the Press' in Washington, D.C., Sunday March 1, 2015. (Photo by: William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-CA, speaks during an event to urge US President Barack Obama to sign the Keystone XL legislation on February 11, 2015 in the Rayburn Room of the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Congress was set Wednesday to green-light the Keystone XL pipeline transporting Canadian oil to US refineries, but President Barack Obama is pledging to veto the measure. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 13: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) speaks as Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) (3rd L), House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (2nd L), and House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (L) listen during a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House January 13, 2015 in Washington, DC. President Obama met with congressional leaders to discuss issues including the economy and the nationals security. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 06: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., takes a picture before the 114th Congress was sworn in on the House floor of the Capitol, January 6, 2015. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 13: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., participates in the press conference announcing House GOP leadership for upcoming session of Congress on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JULY 9: House Majority Leader elect Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., with House Majority Whip elect Steve Scalise, R-La., looking on, speaks during the House GOP leadership media availability after the House Republican Conference meeting in the basement of the Capitol on Wednesday, July 9, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
New Majority Leader of the US House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy arrives to speak during the Faith and Freedom Coalitions Road to Majority Conference on June 20, 2014 in Washington,DC. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 20: House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) addresses the Faith and Freedom Coalition's 'Road to Majority' Policy Conference at the Omni Shoreham hotel June 20, 2014 in Washington, DC. In the wake of Majority Leader Eric Cantor's decision to resign, McCarthy was elected majority leader by the House Republican conference Thursday. Led by the Christian political activist Ralph Reed, the coalition heard from conservative politicians who are courting religious conservatives as they eye a run for the White House. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 19: (L-R) Speaking to the media, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA), Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), the newly elected House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) after the secret ballot voting in the House leader and House Whip races at the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC Thursday June 19, 2014. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 17: House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks to reporters in his bid to be Leader of the House before the upcoming House leadership vote Thursday on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC Tuesday June 17, 2014. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 11: Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is trailed by reporters while walking through Statuary Hall the U.S. Capitol building, June 11, 2014 in Washington, DC. Yesterday House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) lost his Virginia primary to Tea Party challenger Dave Brat, opening a slot for Majority Leader. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 25: U.S. Congress member Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) during Music Policy and the U.S. Congress: An Insider's Briefing, A GRAMMY Townhall at The Wilshire Ebell Theatre on January 25, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Mark Sullivan/WireImage)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 16: Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks to reporters during the media availability immediately after the House Republican Conference meeting at Republican National Committee headquarters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, April 16, 2013. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
MEET THE PRESS -- Pictured: (l-r) ? Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD,) left, and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA,) right, appear on 'Meet the Press' in Washington, D.C., Sunday, March 17, 2013. (Photo by: William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
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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.