REUTERS - Republicans in Congress were plunged into turmoil on Thursday when California Representative Kevin McCarthy, considered the favorite to succeed House Speaker John Boehner, surprisingly dropped out of the race, throwing the party's ability to govern into question.
McCarthy, the No. 2 Republican in the House, had competition from more conservative lawmakers who felt marginalized under Boehner's leadership. The election for Speaker was postponed until further notice, House Republican Conference spokesman Nate Hodson said.
Meanwhile, one House Republican, moderate Representative Charlie Dent, said he expected Boehner to stay on the job until the leadership question is settled. Boehner is scheduled to retire on Oct. 30.
"McCarthy said he was dropping out of the race because he did not think he could unify a splintered caucus, Republicans said. "We were stunned," Representative Tim Helskamp said.
The upheaval comes weeks before the United States is due to reach the limits of its borrowing authority. Congress faces a difficult vote to raise the debt limit to avoid a possible default, and lawmakers are also struggling to reach a deal with President Barack Obama, a Democrat, on spending levels before government funding runs out on Dec. 11.
McCarthy was elected to Congress from California in 2006 and had been one of Boehner's lieutenants in House Republican leadership since 2011. He has been majority leader since August 2014.
He had faced two challengers, Representatives Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Daniel Webster of Florida.
Webster had drawn the backing of the House Freedom Caucus, a bloc of about 40 conservatives. These Tea Party-aligned members noted that Webster, 66, led efforts that "empowered" individual lawmakers while he was speaker of the Florida House from 1996 to 1998.
In several closed-door meetings this week, McCarthy told them he would not be like Boehner, some lawmakers said afterward, but few seem to have found this convincing.
Boehner announced last month he would leave Congress down effective Oct. 30 after nearly five years as speaker that were marked by internal party battles.
McCarthy's ability to effectively communicate Republican initiatives was called into question last week when he made a connection between a special House committee investigating a 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's falling public opinion poll numbers.
Clinton was secretary of state during that attack and Republicans in the past year have been denying allegations from Democrats that the special House committee was created mainly as a forum for attacking Clinton.
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