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The House Republican leadership crisis, explained

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) threw the House of Representatives into chaos on Thursday when he announced that he was dropping out of the race for speaker. It was a shocking development because it was widely believed that McCarthy's election to replace outgoing Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) was almost inevitable. No serious candidates had stepped forward to challenge McCarthy for the post, and many people, including Vox's Jon Allen, expected the real fight to be over who would replace McCarthy in the No. 2 spot.

McCarthy's decision leaves a huge power vacuum in the House of Representatives.

It requires a majority of 218 votes to become speaker of the House, and right now there doesn't seem to be anyone in a position to get that many. There are 188 Democrats in the House who, as a matter of party loyalty, are going to vote for their party's leader, Nancy Pelosi. Normally the 247 House Republicans would vote amongst themselves to pick a leader and then all vote for that person, making him speaker. But a group of about 40 Republicans calling themselves the House Freedom Caucus have made it clear that they will refuse to back any candidate they view as excessively conciliatory toward Obama and congressional Democrats. Between the Freedom Caucus and the Democrats, there aren't enough mainstream Republicans left to elect a speaker on their own.

Due to this dynamic, McCarthy was struggling to get the required 218 votes. But beyond that, he worried about having to govern in the face of continued intransigence from the Freedom Caucus. He would also have faced ongoing fallout from recent comments that the House's ongoing Benghazi investigation was an effort to damage Hillary Clinton politically.

The big question is whether anyone else will be willing or able to win the speakership — or whether the dysfunctional state of the House Republican Conference has made the job so miserable that no one will want it. Boehner had hoped to quit at the end of the month, but he has signaled he will stay on the job until his fellow Republicans are able to choose a successor. And that could take a long time.

John Boehner quit because he hated being speaker

House Speaker John Boehner (Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)

House Speaker John Boehner. (Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)

The House is having an unusual midterm election to choose a new speaker because the current Speaker, John Boehner, abruptly announced his resignation last month. At his press conference to explain the decision, he literally sang "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" about it.

Boehner's job was miserable because he led a Republican majority that was deeply divided about the best way to confront President Obama and push the country in a more conservative direction. A minority of conservative firebrands within the party pushed Boehner into repeated brinksmanship with the president, almost triggering a default of the national debt in 2011 and prompting a two-week government shutdown in 2013. In both cases, Boehner was ultimately forced to rely on significant Democratic votes to pass compromise legislation.

Boehner believed this strategy of repeated brinksmanship was a mistake, but he also believed that passing legislation with mostly Democratic support would deepen the divides among his fellow Republicans. So he would resist compromise until the last possible minute — or in the case of the 2013 compromise, long after it — before finally cutting a deal with the Democrats.

Underlying all of this was an increasingly organized and engaged Republican base placing relentless pressure on rank-and-file Republicans not to compromise with Obama. These grassroots activists were so loosely organized that Boehner couldn't get a clear answer about what would satisfy them. No matter how far he went in standing up to Obama, conservative activists and their allies in Congress demanded he go further.

As a result, Boehner became hated by partisans on both sides. Conservatives blamed him for repeatedly capitulating to Obama; Democrats blamed him for repeatedly indulging what they regarded as unreasonable demands from Republican hard-liners.

Kevin McCarthy hasn't been able to unify House Republicans either

Around 40 of Boehner's strongest critics have organized themselves into a group called the House Freedom Caucus. Boehner's resignation came after a member of the Freedom Caucus had initiated a formal process to strip Boehner of his speakership. Boehner says he would have survived that vote easily, but he believed the fight would deepen divisions among Republicans.

But Boehner's announcement seems to have done little to change the situation. McCarthy lobbied the Freedom Caucus to support his speakership, but those efforts failed. That means that — at best — he would have captured the speakership with a razor-thin majority, facing the same kind of resistance Boehner has.

"If we are going to have all these battles about wanting to do something, it's easier if we have someone who comes and unites us," McCarthy told Politico on Thursday.

McCarthy's bid for the speakership was also hobbled by a self-inflicted wound. In a recent interview with Fox News's Sean Hannity, he said:

Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she's untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened, had we not fought and made that happen.

The comment confirmed the longstanding Democratic contention that Republicans' focus on Benghazi had more to do with partisan politics than with national security. That would have made it awkward to make McCarthy the most prominent Republican in Congress.

Boehner will stay in office until a new speaker is elected

McCarthy now argues that the party needs a "fresh face" to unify all 247 Republicans in the House of Representatives, and that he isn't it. But it's not clear if anyone else will be able to do that either.

The Freedom Caucus members have made it clear they'll only support an extremely conservative candidate for speaker — one that's prepared to trigger another government shutdown in an effort to defund Planned Parenthood and achieve other conservative aims. But more moderate and pragmatic Republicans may not be willing to support anyone who passes the Freedom Caucus's ideological litmus test. Until one side or the other blinks, it might be impossible to find a candidate who can get 218 votes.

This standoff within the Republican conference could last for a long time, and John Boehner has said that he'll stay on as speaker until the House elects a successor. That means that Boehner may not get his wish to retire at the end of October. He may be forced to continue governing for weeks or even months to come.

Ironically, Boehner's lame duck status may actually give him more power than he had before last month's resignation announcement. Previously, Boehner had to worry that compromising too much could trigger a mutiny among conservative Republicans. But he no longer needs to worry about retaining the loyalty of Republicans — since he's already promised to quit. That means that if he thinks Republicans are being unreasonable, he can always ask House Democrats for help passing centrist legislation. That exactly what he did at the end of September, passing legislation to avert a government shutdown with a mix of Democratic and moderate Republican votes.

A "bipartisan speaker" is theoretically possible but highly unlikely

Nancy Pelosi Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Democrats' loyalty to Nancy Pelosi will likely prevent them from voting for a moderate Republican. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

There's no rule requiring a speaker of the House to be elected entirely with votes from the majority party. In principle, a moderate Republican could become speaker by combining the votes of Democrats and moderate Republicans, fully isolating the Freedom Caucus and potentially ushering in a new era of bipartisan cooperation.

But while this outcome might fire the imagination of centrist political pundits, there's little chance of it actually happening. Partisan loyalties are extremely important in Congress. Democrats will be loath to vote for a Republican speaker, and any moderate Republican who became speaker with the aid of Democratic votes would risk being seen as a turncoat within his own party.

Meanwhile, the current disarray in the House Republican conference could be politically useful for Democrats. They'll be able to work with a relatively moderate Speaker Boehner while other Republicans bicker over who should replace him. And if the Republican disarray continues into next year, it can only help Democrats in the 2016 elections.

Watch: Rep. Boehner's Resignation Press Conference