Politics Make for the Strangest of Bedfellows as McCarthy is Ousted as Speaker
Days after a a near miss with a government shut down, McCarthy is ousted as Speaker of the House in a historic vote (Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, Wikimedia Commons)
Following months of Republican Party infighting, on October 3, the House of Representative’s small, far-right Republican flank – joined by House Democrats – voted to remove fellow Republican, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), as the Speaker of the House of Representatives. This unprecedented and unexpected move has thrown the House into chaos as it scrambles to replace McCarthy and conduct its ongoing business.
Speaker of the House of Representatives
According to the official House of Representatives website, the Speaker is the “political and parliamentary leader of the House of Representatives.” The speaker handles numerous administrative and procedural matters. The Constitution does not expressly require the speaker to be a member of the House, but historically, the speaker has always been a member.
The House elects its speaker at the beginning of a new two-year Congressional session, or when a speaker dies, resigns, or is removed from office mid-session.
Who is Kevin McCarthy?
First elected to the House in 2006, Kevin McCarthy represents portions of California’s San Joaquin Valley, with his home base in Bakersfield. Due to redistricting, his constituency has been variously designated as the 22nd District, the 23rd District, and currently, the 20th District.
Generally a Trump loyalist, McCarthy supported the House candidacy of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) when other Republicans backed away from her. Following the 2020 presidential election, McCarthy initially endorsed former President Trump’s effort to overturn the election results but somewhat backpedaled after the January 6 insurrection in 2021.
As House minority leader from January 2021 to January 2023, McCarthy did several things to interfere with the investigative efforts of the House Select Committee on the January 6 attack, including threatening Republicans with a loss of committee assignments if they agreed to serve on the committee and warning telecommunication and social media entities that they would violate unspecified federal laws and potentially lose their ability to do business in the U.S. if they were to turn over private records. In May 2022, McCarthy and three other Republican House members disobeyed committee subpoenas. Consequently, on December 19, 2022, the committee referred these four members to the Office of Congressional Ethics. The January 6 committee stated, “The Rules of the House of Representatives make clear that their willful noncompliance violates multiple standards of conduct and subjects them to discipline.”
January 2023 Speaker Election
The 2022 midterm election results enabled Republicans to take control of the House by a 221-212 margin, one of the smallest majorities in decades. With such a small majority, five dissenting GOP members can thwart a Republican effort to pass legislation. But, barring intraparty dissension, the dominant party can elect the speaker.
Shortly after the midterms, House Republicans held a test vote to identify a leading speaker candidate. McCarthy won but failed to obtain support from about 31 party members.
On January 3, 2023, at the outset of the 118th Congress, McCarthy failed to receive a majority of votes cast on the first speaker ballot: all Democrats and 19 Republicans voted against him. This was the first time since 1923 that a speaker was not elected in the first vote.
Far-right Freedom Caucus Republicans believed McCarthy would not enact their ultra-conservative platform and therefore resisted his selection. McCarthy proceeded to court the Freedom Caucus by promising a series of reforms, such as allowing a single House member to initiate a vote to remove the speaker, giving the caucus three coveted seats on the House Rules Committee, essentially gutting the Office of Congressional Ethics and effectively halting any inquiry into GOP subpoena disobedience, and creating new subcommittees to investigate the U.S. Department of Justice and federal intelligence agencies.
After a record 15 votes over four days, McCarthy finally received a majority and became speaker on January 7, 2023. This was the longest multi-ballot speaker election since 1859. The final vote was 216 for McCarthy, 212 for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), and six GOP “present” votes.
Since his first day as speaker, McCarthy has fought an uphill battle to achieve party unity. Despite McCarthy’s pursuit of GOP objectives, the far-right flank believes McCarthy failed to fight hard enough for ultra-conservative positions. Consequently, the far-right conservatives—a bloc of about 31 House members—repeatedly rebelled against McCarthy’s leadership, going so far as voting against GOP priorities and frequently threatening to oust McCarthy if he declined to comply with far-right demands.
In May 2023, with a looming threat of a global economic crisis, the House dealt with an urgent bill to raise the U.S. debt ceiling. GOP House members wanted drastic preconditions, while House Democrats wanted a “clean bill,” usually used for raising the debt ceiling. McCarthy negotiated a compromise deal with President Biden to include a spending cap. Despite McCarthy’s achievement, he needed Democratic support to offset the 71 House Republicans who promised to vote against it. The measure passed by 314 to 117, with support from 149 Republicans and 165 Democrats.
In August, McCarthy kowtowed to the far-right by initiating a Biden impeachment inquiry and hoped to placate them while he worked toward a budget deal. The far-right, however, insisted on separating the two issues.
McCarthy initially attempted to devise a partisan budget to satisfy the far-right. As weeks passed, an agreeable budget failed to coalesce, House GOP infighting became intense, and a federal government shutdown loomed imminent.
On September 29, 2023, a day before federal government funding would expire, McCarthy worked closely with House Democrats to formulate a 45-day stop-gap budget to avoid a shutdown through November 17, 2023. The temporary bipartisan budget contained provisions to satisfy both sides of the aisle without granting everything desired. On the morning of Saturday, September 30, McCarthy met with House Republicans, where he anticipated hearing a lack of support. Faced with the political and practical realities of a shutdown, however, most Republicans indicated a willingness to approve the stop-gap budget. The far-right, however, bristled. They had repeatedly warned McCarthy his stop-gap proposal—without the major spending cuts they demanded—would mean the end of his tenure as speaker.
On that day, the House approved the temporary budget by a vote of 335-91, with the nay votes coming from 90 House Republicans and one House Democrat. The budget then passed the Senate and was signed by President Biden just hours ahead of the midnight deadline.
On the wings of this victory, McCarthy made light of far-right threats. “If somebody wants to make a motion against me, bring it,” he said. “There has to be an adult in the room. I am going to govern with what’s best for this country.”
On October 2, 2023, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) accused McCarthy of striking a “secret side deal” with Democrats on controversial Ukraine funding. Gaetz cited Biden’s claim that Republicans promised to hold a separate vote on Ukraine funding, and demanded to know exactly “what commitments were made to President Biden.” In response, McCarthy told reporters, “There is no side deal on Ukraine.” Speaking with CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” McCarthy said, “This is personal with Matt… Matt voted against the most conservative ability to protect our border, secure our border. He’s more interested in securing TV interviews than doing something.”
During the evening of Monday, October 2, Gaetz proposed a resolution to declare the speakership vacant. He couched the resolution as a question of privilege which tends to expedite the voting process.
Notwithstanding the successful debt ceiling and budget negotiations, House Democrats felt anger and distrust toward McCarthy. Consequently, House Democrats indicated that they would not rise to McCarthy’s defense. In a letter to his party’s caucus, House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries wrote, “It is now the responsibility of the GOP members to end the House Republican Civil War. Given their unwillingness to break from MAGA extremism in an authentic and comprehensive manner, House Democratic leadership will vote yes on the pending Republican Motion to Vacate the Chair.” Conversely, some pundits wondered about the wisdom of removing McCarthy when his replacement could be even more extreme. For his part, McCarthy announced he would not cut a deal with Democrats to save his seat.
Immediately before voting on Gaetz’s motion to vacate, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) moved to table the question. The delay attempt failed by a vote of 208-218.
The motion to vacate passed by a 216-210 vote. Voting aye were eight far-right Republicans and 208 Democrats.
McCarthy responded to the vote by stating, “I don’t regret standing up for choosing governing over grievance. It is my responsibility. It is my job. I do not regret negotiating. Our government is designed to find compromise.” McCarthy alleges Gaetz had a personal vendetta because McCarthy failed to stop an ethics investigation of Gaetz. Gaetz denies this and insists his motive involved McCarthy’s job performance.
This is the first time a House speaker has been removed in this way (by way of a vacating motion in the middle of a congressional term). Other speakers have opted to step down after losing party support, and there was a 2015 motion that never went to a vote as well as a 1910 failed motion. This, however, is the first-ever passing motion.
The House Rules
Rule I, section 8, subsection 3A, of the House Rules of the 118th Congress provides that “In the case of a vacancy in the Office of Speaker, the next Member on the list shall act as Speaker pro tempore until the election of a Speaker or a Speaker pro tempore. Pending such election the Member acting as Speaker pro tempore may exercise such authorities of the Office of Speaker as may be necessary and appropriate to that end.” As the first individual named on McCarthy’s confidential list of interim leaders, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) became the acting speaker pro tempore.
Some legal authorities have opined the House rules limit an acting speaker pro tem to the tasks necessary and appropriate to electing a new speaker, and would not permit an acting speaker to bring House legislation to the floor, issue subpoenas, or handle House matters requiring speaker approval.
In his first remarks as acting speaker pro tempore, McHenry announced that “prior to proceeding to the election of a speaker, it would be prudent to first recess for the relative caucus [sic] and conferences to meet and discuss the path forward.” Accordingly, the House is in recess until October 10, 2023.
In the wake of the surprise removal of the speaker, House members are perplexed and uncertain about the next steps. House Rules Chairman, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), stated, “Nobody knows what’s going happen next, including all the people that voted to vacate (they) have no earthly idea what, they have no plan. They have no alternative at this point. So it’s just simply a vote for chaos.” Before the vote to vacate, House GOP members asked Gaetz about his game plan if McCarthy were voted out, and Gaetz replied that he did not have one.
Freshman Rep. Jen Kiggans (R-VA) described the GOP infighting as “truly frustrating for those of us who ran for Congress to get the country back on track.” “All the good work that we've done can be derailed by a small group. It is extremely frustrating.” Rep. Greg Murphy (R-NC) referred to Gaetz’s motion to vacate, without a going-forward procedure, as an “asinine gesture.” Other Republicans, such as Rep. Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Rep. Bacon, have discussed removing Gaetz and other far-right House members from the GOP caucus, requiring a two-thirds vote of GOP House members.
The House has calendared an October 10 candidates’ forum and a speaker election on October 11. Currently, there is no clear frontrunner. McCarthy initially declined to run again but suddenly reversed on October 9, announcing he would run again if asked. Announcing his candidacy, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) said “a lot” of House members have urged him to run. In articulating his own bid for the seat, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) claimed “a proven track record of bringing together the diverse array of viewpoints within our Conference to build consensus where others thought it impossible." Other possibles include Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN) and Rep. Kevin Hern (R-OK).
House GOP members are now disagreeing about how to elect a new speaker. On October 6, 2023, 90 House Republicans requested a temporary revision of internal party rules to select a speaker candidate. In part to avoid a repeat of the McCarthy balloting, and in part to force party unity, this group wants the GOP speaker candidate to be a unanimous party selection. This 90-person group represents multiple GOP factions including Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX), a Jordan supporter, Rep. Garrett Graves (R-LA), a McCarthy supporter, and Bob Good, a far-right member who voted to vacate the speaker position.
Strenuously opposing this request are Scalise supporters, who believe the change would make it impossible for Scalise to become the designated candidate. For example, Rep. Lance Gooden (R-TX) observed, “Changing the rules is going to create chaos and only advantages candidates who can’t get to 51 percent in the closed-door vote.” Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO) said that “a last-minute, rushed rule change is really not what the conference needs right now… We need unity and we need leadership, and we should all be prepared to support the nominee who the majority chooses.” So far, the rules have not changed.
Sources & Further Reading