House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was widely viewed as the favorite to succeed John Boehner as the next Speaker of the House, who recently announced he'd be retiring this month.
But earlier today, with just hours to go before the initial, closed-door vote for Speaker was scheduled to take place, McCarthy unexpectedly dropped out, saying that he'll remain Majority Leader. The vote has been postponed until some yet-to-be-determined time in the future. In the meantime, the Speaker's race—and in some ways the entire House—has been thrown into chaos.
Welcome to John Boehner's nightmare.
Earlier this week, The Hill reported that Boehner had joked to Republican colleagues that he might never get to leave. "I had this terrible nightmare last night that I was trying to get out and I couldn't get out," the Ohio Republican reportedly said. "And a hand came reaching, pulling me."
Boehner's dream now looks more like a premonition. With McCarthy out of the race, it's unclear who could win the 218 votes necessary to take the Speaker's job. Challengers to McCarthy include Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Florida), a former Speaker of the Florida House of Representative who recently won the support of the influential House Freedom Caucus.
But at least so far, there's been little sense that either could secure the necessary votes. And if no one manages to get the support of 218 members of the House, then Boehner stays Speaker until someone does.
The Hill quotes Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) on the matter:
"If you don't put up 218, Boehner stays Speaker," Cole explained, "because his resignation doesn't take effect until there's a new Speaker.
"They've checked with the parliamentarian about that. … We will not be without a Speaker."
This would leave Boehner will be trapped in political purgatory, the congressional equivalent of General Zod's exile to the Phantom Zone.
And we would all be trapped with him.
The unrest and uncertainty caused by McCarthy's exit is yet another sign of how fractured the House GOP continues to be, and how difficult it will be for any future Speaker to corral its various factions. McCarthy's move may even make the already fraught leadership transition process even more difficult.
Who will want the job now? And will anyone who actually wants the job be able to wrangle enough votes? Especially with several high-stakes votes on the debt limit and another continuing resolution to fund the government coming before the end of the year.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), one of the few House GOP legislators who is liked and respected across the party, has repeatedly declined to run for the job, and he reiterated his refusal today, a sign of how difficult and thankless it's likely to be. Technically, it's true that the Speaker doesn't have to be a member of Congress. It could be anyone. Clint Eastwood. Donald Trump. You name it. But there's no precedent for a non-member Speaker.
As Politico's Glenn Thrush noted on Twitter, Boehner's best (only?) argument for his Speakership was that nobody else would want this job. The problem is that "nobody" isn't an option for Speaker, which could mean that, at least for a little while, Boehner gets stuck with the job.