Republicans in Washington faced a sudden leadership vacuum on Thursday when the front-runner to take control of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, dropped out of the race in a surprise that raised concerns about the party's ability to govern effectively.
Representative McCarthy, the No. 2 House Republican, had been expected to win Thursday's contest for the nomination to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner despite opposition from more conservative lawmakers who have called for a confrontational approach toward Democratic President Barack Obama's agenda.
Instead, lacking the mandate he thought he needed to be an effective speaker, McCarthy stunned his colleagues by bowing out. "For us to unite, we probably need a fresh face," McCarthy, who is from California, told reporters. He said he would remain majority leader, a post he has held since August 2014.
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House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy
Republicans in chaos as favorite quits House leadership race
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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Boehner, who planned to retire from Congress on Oct. 30, said he would stay on the job as speaker until a replacement is elected. Both the secret-ballot vote to nominate a Republican candidate for speaker and the full House vote, which was set for Oct. 29, have been postponed until further notice.
It was unclear who the "fresh face" that McCarthy spoke of will be as lawmakers face difficult decisions about the spending and national debt that could threaten the country's ability to pay its bills and keep its government running.
Under the leadership of Boehner, an Ohio Republican who relied on McCarthy as an ally, Republicans stumbled into a 16-day government shutdown in 2013 and brought the country to the brink of default in 2011, leading to the United States' first-ever debt rating downgrade.
The next speaker will have to answer to a newly-assertive conservative wing at a time when the party is trying to show voters they can govern effectively ahead of the November 2016 presidential elections.
In several closed-door meetings this week, McCarthy told Republican lawmakers he would run the House in a more inclusive manner than Boehner.
But he failed to convince the 40 or so members of the House Freedom Caucus, a group aligned with the Tea Party movement that calls for lower taxes, less federal spending and reduction of the national debt and federal budget deficit.
The Caucus decided to back a rival of McCarthy, Representative Daniel Webster of Florida. McCarthy also faced criticism for suggesting last week that a congressional probe of the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya were designed to hurt Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Clinton was secretary of state at the time of the attack, which killed four Americans.
House Republicans' inability to merely pick a leader comes after Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, also a Republican, had gone to great lengths to demonstrate that their party can effectively run Congress.
The two lawmakers who had challenged McCarthy for the post, Webster and Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah, said they were still in the race.
"It was just absolutely stunning what happened," Chaffetz said. "I don't know if I am the right person. I put my name in the hat because I do want to unite this party internally."
Other candidates could enter the contest as well.
The Republicans were tossed into upheaval just a few weeks before the United States is due to reach the limits of its borrowing authority. The Treasury department has estimated that the United States will hit its $18 trillion debt cap around Nov. 5, and the White House urged Congress to raise the limit before then to avoid a possible default.
Guggenheim Securities analyst Chris Krueger said he now saw a 40 percent chance that Congress could fail to raise the debt ceiling in time because of gridlock, brinkmanship or procrastination.
"At the end of the day, we still believe this gets done. But we are purely basing that on blind faith because no one on Capitol Hill has a plan to get out of this mess," Krueger wrote in a research note.
Lawmakers are also struggling with Obama on spending levels before government funding runs out on Dec. 11.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest urged Republicans to raise the debt ceiling promptly. He said "there's been a rupture in the Republican Party" between moderates and a vocal conservative minority.
"It does threaten their ability to make a strong case to the American public that they have what it takes to govern the country," Earnest said at a news briefing.
One possible successor to Boehner, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, said he was not interested in becoming speaker.