WASHINGTON – The House voted on Tuesday to oust Kevin McCarthy from the speakership, a move without precedent that left the chamber without a leader and plunged it into chaos.
After a far-right challenge to McCarthy’s leadership, eight GOP hard-liners joined Democrats to strip the California Republican of the speaker’s gavel. The 216-210 vote reflected the deep polarization in Congress and raised questions about who, if anyone, could muster the support to govern an increasingly unruly House GOP majority.
“The office of speaker of the House of the United States House of Representatives is hereby declared vacant,” Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., a McCarthy ally who presided over the chamber during the vote, declared after banging the gavel to finalize the result.
Soon after, McCarthy told Republicans behind closed doors that he would not seek to reclaim the post, ending a tumultuous nine months as speaker. Republicans said they would leave Washington until next week, with no clear path to finding a new speaker of the House.
“I don’t regret standing up for choosing governance over grievance,” McCarthy said at a news conference after the meeting. “It is my responsibility. It is my job. I do not regret negotiating; our government is designed to find compromise.”
It was the culmination of bitter Republican divisions that have festered all year, and capped a power struggle between McCarthy and members of a far-right faction who tried to block his ascent to the speakership in January. They have tormented him ever since, trying to stymie his efforts to keep the nation from defaulting on its debt and ultimately rebelling over his decision over the weekend to turn to Democrats for help in keeping the government from shutting down.
Before the vote, a surreal Republican-against-Republican debate played out on the House floor. Members of the hard-right clutch of rebels disparaged their own speaker and verbally sparred with McCarthy’s defenders, who repeatedly accused the hard-liners of sowing chaos to raise their own political profiles. Democrats sat and watched silently.
“He put his political neck on the line, knowing this day was coming, to do the right thing,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a McCarthy ally who sought unsuccessfully to kill the move to oust him.
“Think long and hard before you plunge us into chaos,” Cole implored the speaker’s detractors, “because that’s where we’re headed if we vacate the speakership.”
But McCarthy’s critics, led by far-right Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., savaged him for what they characterized as a failure to wring steeper spending cuts out of the Biden administration and a lack of leadership.
“Chaos is Speaker McCarthy,” Gaetz declared. “Chaos is somebody who we cannot trust with their word.”
Most of the eight Republicans who voted to remove McCarthy had antagonized him ever since he became speaker. Along with Gaetz, they were: Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Ken Buck of Colorado, Tim Burchett of Tennessee, Eli Crane of Arizona, Bob Good of Virginia, Nancy Mace of South Carolina and Matt Rosendale of Montana.
Only a few of them rose on the House floor ahead of the vote to list their grievances against McCarthy, chief among them that he had relied on Democratic votes to push through two bills they opposed – one to prevent the nation from defaulting on its debt for the first time in history and another, over the weekend, to avert a government shutdown.
“The speaker fought through 15 votes in January to become speaker, but was only willing to fight through one failed CR before surrendering to the Democrats on Saturday,” Good said, referring to a measure known as a continuing resolution for a stopgap spending bill. “We need a speaker who will fight for something, anything besides just staying or becoming speaker.”
A tense scene played out on the floor as lawmakers voted to oust the speaker the same way they vote to elect one: rising one by one from their seats on the House floor in an alphabetical roll call by conducted by the clerk.
In the end, McCarthy was doomed by just eight members of his own party and a united caucus of Democrats, all of whom voted to dethrone him.
The vote left the House paralyzed until a successor is chosen. That promised to tee up another potentially messy speaker election at a time when Congress has just over 40 days to avert another potential government shutdown.
House Republicans met Tuesday night after the vote to discuss how to move forward. Discussions on the future of the conference were being led by Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina. McCarthy had named McHenry first on a list of potential interim speakers in the event of a calamity or vacancy, but he does not have power to run the chamber – only to preside over the election of a new speaker.
There is no clear replacement for McCarthy, though some names reliably come up in conversations with Republicans, including McHenry and Cole, as well as the No. 2 and No. 3 House Republicans, Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Tom Emmer of Minnesota.
“I think there’s plenty of people who can step up and do the job,” said Burchett, adding that he did not have anyone in mind.
But on Tuesday, Republicans were scattering to their districts around the country to regroup, with no clear strategy for how to move forward.
McCarthy did not answer questions from reporters after his ouster, striding quickly off the floor after receiving a barrage of handshakes and hugs from his allies. In the hours before the vote, McCarthy, an inveterate optimist who prides himself on never giving up, was characteristically sanguine, defending his decision to work with Democrats to avert a government shutdown, which precipitated the bid to remove him.
“If you throw a speaker out that has 99% of their conference, that kept government open and paid the troops, I think we’re in a really bad place for how we’re going to run Congress,” he said Tuesday morning. In a closed-door meeting under the Capitol, he told Republicans he had no regrets about his speakership, and was interrupted several times by raucous standing ovations.
In the days leading up to the vote, Democrats had wrestled with whether to help McCarthy survive, or at least to stay out of the effort to oust him.
But their disdain for McCarthy ultimately overrode any political will they had to save him, and in a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the minority leader, instructed fellow Democrats not to do so, citing Republicans’ “unwillingness to break from MAGA extremism.”
That meeting, which was billed as a listening session and strategy meeting to determine how Democrats would vote on Gaetz’s motion to remove McCarthy, quickly became an airing of grievances against the speaker.
The litany piled up: his vote to overturn the 2020 presidential election results after pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021; his decision to renege on the debt limit deal he had brokered with President Joe Biden in the summer to appease the rebels; his friendly relationship with former President Donald Trump; and his decision to open an impeachment inquiry into Biden without evidence of wrongdoing.
“We’re not voting in any way that would help Speaker McCarthy,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said ahead of the vote. “Nobody trusts Kevin McCarthy, and why should they?”
The irony was that McCarthy had made those moves to placate the far-right flank of his party that ultimately ousted him.
“Speaker McCarthy has repeatedly chosen to weaken the institution by bending to extremists rather than collaborating across the aisle,” said Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash. “He has inherited the chaos he has sown.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.