You won’t have Kevin McCarthy to kick around anymore.
The congressman from California announced he would not run for speaker of the House again after lawmakers voted to strip him of his gavel Tuesday afternoon. It was a historic and surprising moment: The chamber has never before removed a speaker from power, and many had expected McCarthy to put up a staunch, potentially drawn-out fight to retain power, much as he sat through 15 grueling rounds of ballots to win his perch in January.
McCarthy explained his decision in a freewheeling, emotionally charged press conference Tuesday, laughing and at times shouting as he took unusually detailed and direct aim at his detractors. In it, he said he had taken “a risk for the American public” by striking a deal with Democrats to avoid a government shutdown, and blamed the minority party for making “a political decision” not to offer their support when conservatives moved to oust him in response.
At one point, he claimed that former Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi had promised to back him up with votes should he ever face the kind of motion to vacate that brought him down on Tuesday. “My fear is the institution fell today,” he said, referring to the American Congress.
McCarthy also lobbed shots at the eight Republicans who voted with Democrats to topple him. “They don’t get to say they’re conservative because they’re angry and chaotic,” he said. He took special aim Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Florida Congressman who led the overthrow effort, accusing him of pursuing a personal vendetta over an ethics investigation. But prompted by reporters, he also threw elbows at Rep. Nancy Mace, the sometimes unpredictable South Carolina moderate who claimed she had voted against McCarthy because he hadn’t followed through on a promise to hold a vote on legislation expanding birth control access.
“Her chief of staff told all of us we have kept every single one of our words,” McCarthy said. “And he said he told her that too. Now if somehow he gets fired I’ll still get him a job.“
“What, I’m being too honest now?” he added as the press erupted.
McCarthy more broadly warned that his party had left itself hostage to a handful of its least compromising members, and argued that it should eliminate the rule allowing a single member to call a snap no-confidence vote against a speaker. “I want to be a Republican and conservative that governs, and we’re going to have to find our way to do that,” McCarthy said.
It’s unclear who might replace McCarthy as speaker, but members have already begun to publicly float names and put themselves forward. Majority Whip Tom Emmer said Rep. Steve Scalise, the no. 2 House Republican, would “make a great speaker.” Rep. Thomas Massie tweeted his support for Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the combative Judiciary Committee chair and longtime favorite among conservatives. Rep. Kevin Hern, R-Okla. said he was interested in the job as well.
Gaetz also named a long list of successors he’d find acceptable to reporters. Some of the names included Scalise, Emmer, Budget Committee Chair Jodey Arrington, Hern, and former Long Island Rep. Lee Zeldin, who left Congress to run a surprisingly competitive race for governor of New York. (By law, the speaker of the House does not have to be an elected member of Congress.)
Republicans will take some time to make a decision. The House adjourned for the week, with plans to vote for a new speaker next Wednesday.
The storm clouds began gathering above McCarthy early in the day, after Democrats made it clear that they would not offer their support to McCarthy without major concessions the former speaker appeared unwilling to make.
“House Democrats remain willing to find common ground on an enlightened path forward,” Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said in a dear colleague letter, announcing that he and other party leaders would back the motion to vacate. “Ultimately, our extreme Republican colleagues have shown no willingness to do the same. It is now the responsibility of the GOP members to end the House Republican Civil War.”
On Tuesday morning, McCarthy told CNBC that Democrats “haven’t asked for anything and I’m not going to provide anything.” But he suggested the party’s members should back him based on “what’s good for government” after he defied the GOP’s right flank of his party to avoid a government shutdown.
That message appeared to fall flat, even with Democratic moderates, despite reports of a furious last-minute push to win over Democratic support by McCarthy’s allies. The former speaker angered much of his opposition by greenlighting an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden and attempting to renege on federal spending levels agreed to in this year’s debt ceiling deal. At a Democratic caucus meeting Tuesday, members largely took the opportunity to vote their anger at the Calfornian.
McCarthy “is a man without principle. He is a man who cannot be trusted,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va. told reporters. “Anyone who thinks that it might be some sort of strategy for Frontliners to try and help McCarthy is kind of fundamentally understanding that to us, nothing is more important than our principles. He has made this bed.”
At the same time, McCarthy also seemed to fumble efforts at winning over the small number of Republican holdouts necessary to quash the rebellion. Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Ky. suggested he was voting to oust McCarthy partly due to condescending treatment from him over needing to pray over the decision.
“When I get a call from the speaker and he belittles that, to me that shows another reason why we need a change of leadership,” he told Semafor.
The View From McCarthy's Allies
Moderate Republicans and McCarthy allies spent much of Tuesday venting their fury at Gaetz, who they accused of plunging the party into bedlam for his own political gain and ego. Many dwelled on the intensely personal nature of the feud between the two men, which has played out in public for months.
“This is some sort of weird, pseudo-psycho-political fetish that needs to come to an end,” Rep. Marc Molinaro, R-N.Y. told Semafor. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., called Gaetz a “a diabolical saboteur who has been single mindedly focused on destabilizing the Republican majority for nine months.
The anger at Gaetz has led to some calls that he be banished from the GOP’s ranks as punishment, echoing a recent Washington Post op-ed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who called the Florida congressman an “an anti-Republican who has become actively destructive to the conservative movement.”
“He shouldn’t be in our conference,” Rep. Don Bacon, a moderate from Nebraska, told reporters. “He’s not a Republican.”
The View From The Senate
The chaos over the speaker’s gavel drew protests from some Republicans in the Senate.
“We saw a similar thing happen to Boehner, Ryan, and now McCarthy. I’m sure the next speaker is going to be subjected to the same terrorist attacks,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas told the Huffington Post, calling it “disgraceful.”
Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-ND, said McCarthy’s ouster reflected the growing current of anger within GOP politics, one that’s knocked out the past three Republican speakers of the House stretching back to 2015.
“It’s chaos for the sake of a couple of people who honestly are built to be in the minority. Matt Gaetz and a few others, they’re built to be in the minority,” Cramer said. “The minority is a very easy place to raise havoc, to get people to support you because you don’t have any real governing responsibility.”
“You can’t turn individualism into chaos and pat yourself on the back,” he added.