Kevin McCarthy Removed as House Speaker in Unprecedented Vote

Washington Post photo by Ricky Carioti
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) talks to reporters after a House Republican Conference meeting at the Capitol on Tuesday.

WASHINGTON – Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was ousted as House speaker Tuesday after failing to withstand a rebellion among far-right dissidents, as the House voted for the first time in history to remove its leader and entered a period of unpredictability and paralysis. McCarthy later announced he would not seek the position again, setting up an expected intraparty battle for the position second in line to the presidency.

Tuesday’s dramatic vote was the culmination of a bitter power struggle between McCarthy and hard-line Republican lawmakers that has persisted throughout his roughly nine months as speaker, after the Californian helped lead the GOP to a narrow majority in last year’s midterm elections.

It was a step never before taken in the more-than-240-year history of the House of Representatives, pushed by an increasingly radicalized Republican faction that, emboldened since the rise of the tea party, has repeatedly shut down the government and led the country to the brink of a default on its debt. House Republicans now need to select a new leader and find consensus for funding the government by mid-November or again risk a shutdown.

McCarthy’s removal is an earthquake for the fractious House GOP conference, which has been marked by long-standing tensions among ideological factions that are now expected to come to a head. The House has adjourned until Tuesday, when candidate forums will begin for those who seek the speakership. House Republican also wanted time for emotions to settle and to prevent increased animosity among GOP lawmakers if they remained together this week.

The divided conference had barely held together since the beginning of the year, when it took McCarthy 15 rounds to win the speaker’s gavel. The threat of a possible ouster by the far-right faction was an undercurrent to every decision he made.

Often tested by the narrow majority, scores of McCarthy’s House Republican allies had warned throughout the year that he would probably face a motion to vacate the speakership – the procedural tool used to oust him – after far-right holdouts demanded a lower threshold for such a motion during McCarthy’s leadership election in January. Many of those Republicans predicted McCarthy never would be able to appease the hard-liners, especially after the government funding deadline since many of McCarthy’s promises hinged on curbing spending significantly.

“I may have lost the vote today,” McCarthy said Tuesday. “But as I walked out of this chamber, I feel fortunate to have served Americans.”

Democrats voted as a bloc against McCarthy after he refused to ask them for help and publicly dismissed trying to become a coalition speaker for all in exchange for their support.

All Democrats present joined Republican Reps. Andy Biggs (Ariz.), Ken Buck (Colo.), Tim Burchett (Tenn.), Elijah Crane (Ariz.), Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Bob Good (Va.), Nancy Mace (S.C.) and Matthew M. Rosendale (Mont.) to eject McCarthy.

As the 216-210 vote was called, McCarthy smiled and stared from the House floor at the speaker’s chair – once his – that oversees the chamber. Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.) is now acting speaker until the House elects a new speaker. He was selected for the role by McCarthy, his close friend, in a process that requires the speaker to secretly select who would be acting speaker if they were to ever be vacated from the role.

The motion to remove McCarthy was brought Monday by Gaetz, who argued his position in the chamber Tuesday as scores of Republicans booed him or accused him of falsely portraying himself as a martyr. A majority of House Republicans have staunchly defended McCarthy and denounced Gaetz. The disdain was palpable in the chamber: Gaetz was prevented from sitting with Republicans during the hour of impassioned debate.

“Unfortunately 4 percent of our conference sided with all the Democrats and dictate who can be the Republican speaker of the House,” McCarthy said in a stemwinder of a news conference.

Gaetz remained defiant after more Republicans defended McCarthy than argued for his removal.

“I’ll make this argument at any desk in this building, from the well, from the chair. I’ll make it on every street corner in this country – that Washington must change,” Gaetz said from a podium on the Democratic side of the chamber.

Moments after the vote, House Republicans began to privately whisper of ejecting Gaetz from the GOP conference. Smaller groups, such as the moderate Republican Governance Group, also began discussing removing Mace from their ranks as her vote against McCarthy was viewed as an act of betrayal.

Democrats played a determinative role in the ouster of McCarthy after deciding that they did not trust him; they view him as a figure who has eroded democracy during his time as speaker and previously as minority leader.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday urged moderate Republicans to break away from the “extremists” in their party and join with Democrats “to move the Congress and the country forward.”

Jeffries’s call came after a rousing closed-door Democratic caucus meeting where cellphones were not allowed and members discussed how to address the impending vote.

“We are ready, willing and able to work together with our Republican colleagues, but it is on them to join us,” Jeffries told reporters after the hours-long caucus meeting.

Democrats emerged from the meeting unified. They hold McCarthy responsible for placating President Donald Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, visiting Trump at his Florida resort soon after the president left office and trying to stymie the House select committee tasked with investigating the insurrection. They are furious that he walked back a deal with President Biden to lift the debt limit. What pushed them over the edge was McCarthy blaming Democrats for wanting to shut down the government the day after all but one Democrat voted for a stopgap spending bill last week.

While Republicans had left their morning meeting hopeful that they would still be able to convince some Democrats to vote “present” on a motion to table the resolution to oust McCarthy, that hope quickly dissipated during a meeting of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. Republicans spent more than an hour trying to convince the Democrats in that group – seen as most willing to cross the aisle – that voting to keep a speaker in place was critical to save the House as an institution, even as lawmakers from both parties admitted that the political environment has devolved over the years.

Democrats there echoed the same concerns espoused by the entire caucus – that McCarthy had already allowed the House to sink into political chaos, starting during his time as minority leader after Jan. 6, 2021. Democrats in the Problem Solvers meeting also said their colleagues were angry that McCarthy blamed Democrats for failing to help fund the government.

McCarthy “dug his own grave,” said one person leaving the Problem Solvers meeting, speaking on the condition of anonymity to detail sensitive conversations.

Republicans offered Democrats the chance to weigh in on potential changes to the House rules, which Republicans see as an opportunity to again increase the threshold necessary to move to vacate the speaker. But Democrats largely said they would not help bail out McCarthy because he hadn’t asked for their help. And many Democrats in the bipartisan meeting wouldn’t agree to conditions Republicans promised because McCarthy has previously gone back on deals he has made.

“It’s a clusterf—,” said one GOP lawmaker emerging from the meeting, before saying House Republicans were preparing for McCarthy to be removed.

In the broader caucus meeting Tuesday, rank-and-file Democrats spoke about various indignities they said McCarthy had brought upon the House, according to lawmakers, directly rejecting the argument from McCarthy allies that they needed to support the speaker to save it.

“The issues of Kevin McCarthy are the same ones that have existed – a lack of trust, giving the gavel to extremists in his caucus and his failure to defend democracy,” House Minority Whip Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.) said.

Democrats do not have any responsibility to elect a Republican speaker, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) told reporters. “We don’t have a particular obligation to save this speaker.”

Inside the meeting, Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar (Calif.) showed a video of McCarthy on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, in which he attempted to blame Democrats for wanting to shut down the government. The charge was a misrepresentation of the events of the past several weeks, when House Republicans were unable to fund the government with only GOP support. All but one House Democrat voted for the eventual short-term government funding bill.

Democrats inside the room were “outraged” at McCarthy’s charge, according to Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.). “His performance was a very clarifying event for Democrats,” said Connolly.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), who is close to Democratic leadership and also running for Senate, intimated after leaving the caucus meeting that Democrats were in no mood to help Republicans.

“Hearing their words in the last 12 hours is all you need to understand,” Slotkin said.

The effort to dismiss McCarthy roiled House Republicans, many of whom supported him and fear an intraparty war.

Gaetz on Monday introduced the resolution to remove McCarthy from his leadership position, after weeks of threatening to do so, because McCarthy passed the stopgap measure to fund the government with Democratic support.

After the resolution was introduced, McCarthy tried to project confidence, posting a defiant message on social media Monday night – “Bring it on” – and casting Gaetz as a part of a vocal minority in the Republican conference.

Hard-right obstructionists in the House GOP made clear for weeks that they would try to oust McCarthy if he relied on Democrats to pass any funding legislation. Several lawmakers remained frustrated over McCarthy’s leadership.

“We had a conversation last week, and the last thing he said was, ‘Oh, I really want to be speaker.’ I think that sums up the whole thing,” said Burchett, who said he would vote to oust McCarthy even though it would probably attract a primary challenger for himself. “It should be bigger than that. . . . It’s not about one person. It’s about our country right now.”

However, Gaetz’s move angered dozens of Republican lawmakers who support McCarthy, saying the speaker was forced to rely on Democratic votes to avoid a government shutdown over the weekend only because of obstinance from the hard-right lawmakers in their own party.

Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) said Republicans should be focused on trying to pass conservative long-term spending bills right now – not on leadership fights. “I can’t really fathom the need to be able to change jockeys when we’re in the middle of this race,” Womack said.

“This is just absolutely uncalled for, unnecessary and counterproductive.”