McCarthy Eyes Exit From House After Speakership Loss

At an emotional evening news conference immediately after he was removed as speaker of the House, Representative Kevin McCarthy gave an inconclusive answer about whether he would remain in Congress.

“I’ll look at that,” he said then.

Over the past two months, Mr. McCarthy has given the life of a rank-and-file member a hard look and discovered it to be a painful existence after having been at the pinnacle of his party in the House for more than a decade.

These days, Mr. McCarthy, famous for his preternaturally sunny California disposition, has been hard to cheer up. He no longer attends the conference meetings he used to preside over, and at times has struggled to contain his anger at the Republicans who deposed him. (He denied the accusation from one of them, Representative Tim Burchett of Tennessee, that he elbowed him in the kidney in a basement hallway of the Capitol.)

He has also struggled to make peace with the idea that it’s time to go, even as California’s Dec. 8 filing deadline to run for re-election draws near and his colleagues expect him to leave.

“When you spend two decades building something, it’s difficult to end that chapter,” said Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, one of Mr. McCarthy’s closest friends in Congress. “His life has been building the Republican majority and attaining the third-highest office in the land. It is difficult for any mortal to deal with an abrupt end and determine his next chapter.”

But the current chapter has grown increasingly untenable for him.

As he has made his way around the Capitol contemplating his options for the future and cycling through various stages of grief over his merciless political downfall, Mr. McCarthy has retained small perks from his old life that serve mostly as painful reminders of all that has been taken away.

He still has the kind of security detail furnished to the person second in line to the presidency, but he has been removed from the speaker’s suite of offices in the middle of the Capitol that serve as the building’s power center. He has participated in high-profile engagements, such as a recent speech to the Oxford Union and an interview at the New York Times DealBook summit, but those were booked before his ouster.

Many colleagues still consider him a skillful convener of people with institutional knowledge about the workings of a Republican majority he helped build. But his inexperienced successor, Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana, has not sought him out for any advice on managing the fractious Republican conference. And Mr. McCarthy has had to watch from the sidelines as Mr. Johnson has made some of the same choices that led to his own downfall — such as working with Democrats to avert a government shutdown — and, at least so far, paid little price.

Mr. McCarthy has labored to acclimate.

“After any stressful situation, it takes a while for the body to normalize,” Mr. McHenry said of the former speaker. “And when you talk about the extremes of political ambition, which is required to attain the speakership, it is even more dramatic to wring those chemicals out of your body to return to being a normal human.”

On Instagram, where Mr. McCarthy recently shared pictures of his dogs hanging out in his Bakersfield, Calif., district office, many of the people commenting on the picture chimed in to remind him that despite his handle, “@SpeakerMcCarthy,” he was the speaker no more. (The title is technically his for life.)

House Republicans are beginning to move past Mr. McCarthy’s removal as they navigate business with Mr. Johnson at the helm. But Mr. McCarthy has not finished processing his defenestration. He is someone who has never enjoyed being alone, and an emptier schedule leaves more time to spend in one’s own head.

As unpleasant as it may be to hang around Congress in his diminished state, Mr. McCarthy has been forthright about the difficulty of deciding whether to leave politics, and when.

“I just went through losing, so you go through different stages,” Mr. McCarthy said in a brief interview after his DealBook appearance on Wednesday in New York City. “I have to know that when I go, that there’s a place for me, and what am I going to do, and is that best?”

Mr. McCarthy said he was taking his time in making a decision about whether to leave Congress, in part because he did not want to make a hasty decision he might come to regret.

“I have to know that if I decided that wasn’t for me and I leave, I don’t want a year from now to think ‘Aw, I regret — I shouldn’t have left,’” he said. “So if I take a little longer than most people normally, that’s just what I’m going through.”

Some center-leaning Republicans are pressing him to stay.

“You have a lot of members who haven’t been here that long,” said Sarah Chamberlain, the president of the Republican Main Street Partnership, an outside organization allied with the congressional caucus of the same name. “You need some senior statesmen to teach the members how the process works, and he’s one of the last ones left.”

Ms. Chamberlain added, “On a personal level, I can completely understand if he decides to leave. On an institutional level, it would be a shame to lose him.”

If Mr. McCarthy were to exit Congress right away, it would also shrink the already-slim Republican majority, which went from four to three seats with the expulsion on Friday of Representative George Santos of New York. (As Mr. Johnson presided over the vote to oust Mr. Santos, Mr. McCarthy did not show up to register a position.)

Still, it is highly unusual for a former speaker to choose to stick around. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi has broken with tradition and embraced her emeritus status, describing herself as “emancipated” from the pressures of her old job.

In September, the 83-year-old San Francisco Democrat surprised some of her colleagues by announcing she would run for another term. But Ms. Pelosi is at the end of a career that made history — she was the first woman to hold the post of speaker — and was able to leave her post, which she held for a cumulative eight years, on her own terms. The new generation of Democratic leaders in the House treats her with reverence and continues to solicit her advice on big decisions.

In contrast, the awkward position of Mr. McCarthy, 58, who held the top job for little more than eight months and made history as the first speaker ever ousted, has been all too clearly on display.

Ever since January, when Mr. McCarthy agreed to rule changes to appease the hard right in order to win the gavel, he and his allies had anticipated that his speakership could end exactly the way it finally did. But that has not left him feeling any less bitter about it.

Though Mr. McCarthy denied intentionally shoving Mr. Burchett, he responded angrily to the accusation.

“If I hit somebody, they would know it,” he told reporters, his voice rising with irritation. “If I kidney punched someone, they would be on the ground.”

He has gone on television to scold Mr. Burchett and the other colleagues who brought him down, and pushed the Republican conference to exact some retribution against them even though there appears to be little appetite to do so.

“I don’t believe the conference will ever heal if there’s no consequences for the action,” Mr. McCarthy told CNN in a recent interview. He also said that Mr. Burchett and Representative Nancy Mace of South Carolina, who also voted to oust him, “care a lot about press, not about policy.”

Despite his inner turmoil and painful power detox, Mr. McCarthy has made it clear that he aims to use his remaining time, influence and campaign money to help his party keep control of the House. That may also serve a rejuvenating purpose for him if he chooses to intervene in congressional races to try to defeat the Republican members who voted to oust him and bolster the candidacies of those aligned with him.

“I may not be speaker,” he said during a recent appearance on “Fox & Friends.” “But I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure Republicans win.”

Robert Jimison contributed reporting.