The fate of U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was swiftly sealed. His colleagues voted on Tuesday to remove him as the country’s third-highest authority, less than 24 hours after his great rival in the Republican ranks, Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, a member of the radical wing and a figure who has shown during the last week an unusual appetite for the spotlight, announced his intention to file a motion to vacate against his leader in Congress. The historic decision plunges the United States into an unprecedented legislative paralysis and has left Capitol Hill in chaos.
After 2:30 p.m. EST, the floor voted to go ahead with the motion to vacate, while the reporters, crowded in the press gallery, counted McCarthy’s allies (11), rivals and absences, with the most resounding of all being that of Nancy Pelosi. A little more than an hour of crossed speeches later, the fulminating political dismissal was consummated with an archaic voice vote. Eight Republicans and all the Democrats present (208) withdrew their confidence in McCarthy, who watched with apparent glee at his public humiliation from the middle of the chamber and soon received several standing ovations from his few supporters. It had been more than a century since such a vote had been taken on the floor, and it is the first time in history that a speaker has been removed from office in such a dishonorable manner.
The reason for the ousting is McCarthy’s last Saturday’s in extremis pact with the Democrats, from whom he wrested a vote to avoid a federal government shutdown in Washington, which resulted in a budget extension until November 17. Left out of that compromise was aid to Ukraine, which divides the Republican Party. Gaetz and the rest of the fractious congresspeople McCarthy has been battling for nine months, when they put him through 15 votes before allowing him to be elected speaker, interpreted that compromise as an unforgivable betrayal.
Gaetz, banished by his own, took the floor from a microphone on the Democratic side before the final vote. He spoke with the fervor of someone who has been waiting for his moment for a long time. “My colleagues and I cannot support our party in leading the country into chaos,” he said to justify his initiative. “Chaos is Speaker McCarthy. Chaos is somebody we cannot trust with their words. Chaos is accumulating $33 trillion in debt, and an annual deficit of $2.2 trillion.”
Tuesday was another of those hectic days on Capitol Hill for McCarthy, a political circus show broadcast live to a public already too accustomed to Washington’s dysfunctionality. It soon became known that the House did not intend to use up the two-day maximum time limit to hold McCarthy’s confidence vote. McCarthy, a representative from California, tried to stop the punch and unsuccessfully save himself from the bitter pill, appearing before the press with the half-smile that has been frozen on his face for several days. He tried to convey self-confidence and announced that if he obtained the support of the Democrats it would not be in exchange for any compromise.
The Democrat’s decision
Both parties held closed-door meetings. Members of Congress only left them to attend to the press, who ran from one representative’s office to another. By mid-morning, when “chaos” had become the word of the day, Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries confirmed to a swarm of reporters that he was not going to ask his party to vote to save McCarthy. The choice was whether to let an opponent who does not arouse any sympathy fall or to save him in order to avoid paralysis in the House until a successor is chosen, while time is already ticking toward the next deadline to avoid the dreaded government shutdown. This Wednesday, it will be just 43 days away.
Early in the afternoon, Jeffries went even further, sending a letter to his colleagues in which he confirmed that they would vote to expel McCarthy given the “unwillingness to break from MAGA extremism in an authentic and comprehensive manner.” In the text, the politician accused his rivals of unleashing “chaos, dysfunction and extremism on hard-working American taxpayers” by, among other things, failing to fulfill a funding commitment made to Biden, promoting “radical legislation” and launching an impeachment against the president for the affairs of his son Hunter without the prior approval of the full House of Representatives.
Gaetz’s initiative had the initial support of several Republicans from the hard right, who announced on Monday that they were on board: among them, Bob Good (Va.), Tim Burchett (Tenn.), and Eli Crane and Andy Biggs (both Ariz.). Good took the floor when it appeared that McCarthy had no solution with a speech that began by lamenting that all this was happening and then mercilessly proceeded to make firewood out of the fallen tree. A simple majority of those taking part in the vote was enough for the removal to take place. The House has 435 congressmen, but there are two vacancies (one for each party). The composition resulting from last November’s elections gave the conservatives a meager advantage of 222 to 213.
McCarthy did not have to look very far to find those responsible for him being at the edge of the abyss. It is well known that the political dream of his life was to become speaker of the House, but the slim majority which put him on the verge of achieving it also forced him to make some concessions to the most extreme wing of his party. One of them was to change the rules so that the efforts of a single representative — instead of the five that were previously required — would be enough to present a motion to vacate. That lone sniper has turned out to be Gaetz. Since January, neither of them has made any secret of their mutual dislike for each other.
Back then, it took 15 votes to bend the wayward will of Gaetz and his followers. It was a historic embarrassment: it had been more than a century since the House of Representatives had had to repeat the vote so many times to choose the majority leader.
Tuesday’s affair was similarly unprecedented. The last time there was such an attempted removal on Capitol Hill was in 2015, when then-Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) (who would later become Donald Trump’s chief of staff) introduced a resolution to oust John Boehner (Ohio). The House never got to vote on it, but Boehner resigned anyway.
In 1910, it was the Speaker of the House of Representatives himself, Joseph Cannon, who raised a motion to vacate the seat and which, being advanced by the incumbent himself, served instead as a motion of confidence. Fed up with the criticism from some lawmakers, he called for a vote so that he could win it and thus turn the move into a show of force.
The fall of the gavel after the vote that ousted McCarthy on Tuesday left the echo with an urgent question: what now? His seat will now be filled on an interim basis by the top of a list submitted by McCarthy himself to the Clerk of the House. His first mission will be to secure the appointment of a new speaker. There is no Republican candidate who enjoys enough support to do so.
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