What's next for Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy?
For two weeks the California Republican was the favorite to succeed John A. Boehner as speaker, but just minutes before his colleagues were set to vote on his nomination he pulled back, saying he was "not the one" to lead the deeply fractured GOP conference.
But is he "the one" to stick around as the No. 2 House Republican? For now, members say "yes" — both in office and as the majority leader.
Some even predict things could get easier for McCarthy, who conservatives were dismissing a few days earlier as "Boehner 2.0."
"He's more effective now, probably so," said one of McCarthy's critics, Rep. Mick Muvlaney, R-S.C. "It's a pretty selfless thing to do, right? And it's probably the proper role of the leader. He's got to be able to lead the body, the majority, and if he's seen as a divisive figure as Mr. Boehner was, then maybe he's not capable of doing that."
Mulvaney added he had more respect for McCarthy now, following his colleague's decision not to run for speaker.
Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., another frequent agitator of current GOP leadership slate, agreed: "I thought [McCarthy's] comments at conference today were really appropriate. ... He didn't want to put the conference at any greater risk."
McCarthy Drops Out of Race for Speaker
According to a source in the room, McCarthy enjoyed two standing ovations at Friday morning's Republican Conference meeting, where he was lauded for reading the tea leaves that it was better for everyone if he bowed out now than forced members to endure an ugly floor fight later.
He confirmed he will continue to serve as majority leader and run for re-election in 2016.
"I think he did what John Boehner did," said freshman Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., a member, like Mulvaney and Stuzman, of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. "A pretty honorable thing, to show that neither one of them had a personal gain."
When Boehner announced he would resign at the end of October, he characterized his exit as one motivated by a desire to put the party infighting to rest; also, he was facing a possible floor vote to wrest him of his gavel.
"I didn't rule him out as speaker," Loudermilk continued. "[Members'] frustration is being taken out on certain people. The problem here is not the people, it's the process."
Ultimately, members griping about McCarthy's rhetorical flap on Fox News linking the Benghazi Committee to Hillary Rodham Clinton's sinking poll numbers were suddenly more forgiving, now that the No. 2 Republican wasn't still trying to move up to be No. 1.
And Republican Study Committee Chairman Bill Flores of Texas dismissed suggestions from reporters Friday that McCarthy was less credible in light of unsubstantiated rumors of an extramarital affair.
"I haven't seen anything substantive to prove it," he said. "I don't think any of us are thinking about that."
Flores later told CQ Roll Call he expected McCarthy's reputation in the House Republican Conference to be largely unchanged.
"I don't think the people who had positive opinions of him before have changed their opinion; I don't think the people who had negative opinions of him before have changed their opinion," Flores said after a long pause. "So my position would be, he is kind of where he was before. Maybe he lost a little bit of shine for a while but I think he's OK. I think people are willing for him to continue as majority leader."
Former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., was visiting old colleagues Friday during the early afternoon vote series. He told CQ Roll Call he suspected McCarthy would have another chance one day down the line.
"I think his time will come," Davis said. "A young guy, and I think his time can still come, absolutely."