Kevin McCarthy ousted as House speaker — Far-right coup leads to Capitol chaos

Kevin McCarthy Tom Brenner for The Washington Post via Getty Images
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California has been removed as speaker of the House of Representatives after his colleagues voted 216-210 in favor of a motion to vacate the speakership. That motion was proposed Monday by Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, a longtime Republican opponent of McCarthy's. Eight members of the Republican majority voted with all 208 Democrats present in supporting the motion. In the history of the U.S. Congress, this marks the first time a speaker has been removed in this fashion.

At this moment, the House has no speaker and cannot advance legislation. Although Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., will serve as temporary speaker, normal legislative business will cease until a new speaker is elected. There is no clear indication of who that might be, although Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the majority leader, is a likely leading contender. Reports on Tuesday night suggested that McCarthy has told Republican colleagues he will not seek the office again.

The Republican members who voted to oust McCarthy, along with Gaetz, were 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.

McCarthy's downfall came more rapidly than many observers expected after Gaetz made good on his oft-repeated threat to file a motion to vacate on Monday night. The speaker's downfall follows months worth of tensions between a handful of members on the far-right flank of the House Republican caucus and more moderate members, who overwhelmingly backed McCarthy.

McCarthy's predicament stemmed from two interlocking factors. The first was that among his numerous concessions to hard-right GOP members during the speakership battle last January was a rule change that allowed a single member to introduce a motion to vacate, as Gaetz did this week.

Secondly, the Republicans' razor-thin House majority meant that even a handful of defectors would be enough to doom McCarthy, unless he could persuade enough Democrats to support him to make up the difference. Despite a handful of rumors regarding possible backroom deals, no Democratic members voted against the motion to vacate on Tuesday afternoon.

Earlier on Tuesday, prior to the vote on a "motion to table" that would have shut down Gaetz's intra-party coup, Democrats indicated that no deal had been made, and they would vote unanimously to oust the speaker. "We're not saving Kevin McCarthy," Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., told The Messenger. "There'll be a motion to table. A vote that was either present or yes would be saving Kevin McCarthy."

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., expressed similar sentiments during an appearance on CNN's "State of the Union" last weekend, nothing that McCarthy never had her vote to begin with. When asked if she would support the motion to vacate, she responded "Absolutely," adding that she believed McCarthy was a "very weak speaker" who "clearly has lost control of his caucus."

Tuesday's earlier motion to table failed, with 11 Republicans voting against it, allowing the later vote on the motion to vacate to continue. Three of those Republican members apparently changed course and voted to support McCarthy on the final vote, but that wasn't enough to rescue him.

Gaetz, who has long been one of McCarthy's most vocal opponents among Republican hardliners — and who never voted to support him in January — announced his plans to oust McCarthy on Sunday after the speaker's compromise deal with Democrats on a stopgap spending bill that avoided a government shutdown.

Gaetz joined with a number of far-right colleagues in voting down a number of measures McCarthy had proposed in the days leading up to the shutdown deadline. He and 20 other Republican members even joined with Democrats in killing a last-ditch, GOP-crafted bill last Friday.

Those failed attempts to unify the Republican conference on government funding legislation marked significant and embarrassing defeats for McCarthy, paving the way for the startling humiliation of Tuesday's vote to end his speakership.

After McCarthy announced the launch of an impeachment inquiry against President Biden last month, Gaetz vowed to repeatedly file motions to vacate the speakership, claiming that McCarthy had reneged on his promises to hardline Republicans.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

"I rise today to serve notice: Mr. Speaker, you are out of compliance with the agreement that allowed you to assume this role," Gaetz said during a speech on the House floor following the impeachment inquiry's announcement. "The path forward for the House of Representatives is to either bring you into immediate, total compliance or remove you pursuant to a motion to vacate the chair,"

In an appearance with CNN's Abby Phillip later that day, Gaetz expressed regret that he was not able to block the debt limit deal that McCarthy had reached with Biden earlier this year that prevented the U.S. from defaulting on its debt. He urged McCarthy to adopt a tougher approach to a range of issues in order to avoid the barrage of motions.

"I'm going to do it over and over again until it works, and today we saw a baby step towards that with more robust efforts towards impeachment, but I'm going to keep doing it. ... The American people want term limits, they want balanced budgets, they don't want to see government funding wrapped up in just one up-or-down vote," Gaetz told Phillip.

Gaetz's intra-party coup marks the culmination — but perhaps not the end — of months-long tensions between McCarthy and the right-wing members of his conference, who forced him to undergo 15 rounds of votes in January to win the speakership. In his ultimate deal to secure the speaker's gavel, McCarthy agreed to allow a single member to advance a motion to vacate, a decision he may now regret.

When the threats to oust him from the role rolled in last month, McCarthy issued a profane challenge to those Republican lawmakers, sources told Politico.

"Go ahead. I'm not f—king scared of it. Any new speaker will do what I'm doing," one legislator said they recalled the speaker saying. "If you think you scare me because you want to file a motion to vacate, move the f—ing motion," McCarthy said, according to two other anonymous Republican lawmakers interviewed by the outlet.