Shortly after 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Kevin McCarthy succumbed to Matt Gaetz’s attempt to strip the California lawmaker of his gavel, becoming the first House Speaker to ever be removed in a floor vote. In a vote of 216 to 210, with eight Republicans voting against McCarthy and no Democrats crossing the aisle to save the embattled Speaker, McCarthy was ousted.
The historic vote leaves the Speakership unoccupied, as the House, where Republicans hold a slim majority, will have to choose a new leader. Republicans can nominate McCarthy again, or other contenders, while House Democrats will surely support their leader, Hakeem Jeffries, as they did throughout the voting process in January.
Ahead of Tuesday’s procedural vote on whether to bring Gaetz’s motion to vacate to the floor, Democrats presented a united front. “Hakeem Jeffries is our Speaker, and I think over the course of the last nine months, we’ve seen why. Hakeem Jeffries is a smart, decent, thoughtful person who makes the right decisions. Kevin McCarthy is a craven politician who has given into the far right at every turn, leading the House into chaos and dysfunction,” Democrat Adam Smith told VF. Asked about a Republican alternative to McCarthy, Smith said the onus would be on the GOP to determine a replacement. “Hakeem Jeffries is the person I want to be Speaker, and if they want somebody else, they can get the votes for that. That’s just the way it works.”
The final vote to oust McCarthy came less than 24 hours after Gaetz introduced a motion to vacate on the House floor. But this scenario had been in motion for weeks, as the Florida congressman had threatened to move against McCarthy if he failed to cave to his right flank in the government funding fight. So when McCarthy snubbed the conservative hard-liners in his caucus over the weekend by introducing a clean continuing resolution, or CR, to keep the federal lights on, he sealed his fate. And with a majority of just four Republican votes, it was expected that Democrats would need to come to McCarthy’s rescue.
Speaking with reporters on the Capitol steps Monday night, shortly after he filed the motion to vacate, Gaetz himself said as much. “The yellow brick road of working with Democrats has been paved, constructed, engineered, and architected by Kevin McCarthy,” he said. “If the Democrats want to own Kevin McCarthy, they can have him, because one thing I’m at peace with is, when we stand here a week from now, I won’t own Kevin McCarthy anymore. He won’t belong to me. So if the Democrats want to adopt him, they can adopt him.”
Democrats didn’t choose that path. After all, why should it have fallen to them? Ultimately, after McCarthy reneged on the spending limits he agreed to with Joe Biden’s White House, Democrats were unwilling to put their trust in him. On Monday, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle whom Vanity Fair spoke to sounded like they were reading from the same script. The through line: McCarthy could not be trusted. Among the hard-liners: “Kevin McCarthy likes to pretend that he makes [a] coalition with conservatives, but all he really does is break his word with conservatives,” Gaetz said. “I’d like for us to keep our word; I’d like for us to do what’s right,” Republican Tim Burchett, who voted in favor of the motion to vacate, told reporters.
Democrats echoed the sentiment. “I don’t trust McCarthy,” Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told VF. If a deal were to be struck with the Speaker, Jayapal added, “it’s not a pinkie swear,” and “I don’t think we can agree to something unless it’s codified in the rules of the House.” California Democrat Jared Huffman said the same, quoting his colleague Jim McGovern: “He said it best—I am not a cheap date. I’m a very expensive date,” Huffman explained, noting that Democrats needed to seize the moment and exercise their leverage. Huffman wasn’t interested in going Dutch with McCarthy: “Trust but verify. You put it in a rule.”
As fissures within the Republican caucus widened after McCarthy introduced the CR on Saturday, Democrats stressed that their strength lay in their unity. “The unity of our caucus, of the Democratic caucus, really has been an enormous part of our strength,” Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told reporters Monday. “We just assess the conditions of the moment; it’s really not about any one individual. It’s about the decision we make as a team to really do as much as we can to deliver for people.”
On Tuesday—after keeping his powder dry and staying mum—Jeffries issued his guidance to his caucus: Don’t save McCarthy. The outcome, frankly, is one that seemed inevitable over the past few weeks—if not from the moment McCarthy, following 14 failed votes, finally won the Speaker’s gavel in January after making a string of concessions to an unruly, unserious band of chaos actors within his own caucus.
After the House returned from its August recess, McCarthy sought to placate the hard-liners in his party. It started on the House’s first day back, when the Speaker announced an impeachment inquiry into Biden—despite a clear lack of any evidence of wrongdoing by the president. (The first hearing, held on Thursday, was a flop.) But while the impeachment inquiry was applauded, it failed to quell the rebellion brewing among members of McCarthy’s right flank. As Republican Scott Perry told reporters that day, “We can do two things at one time”—indicating that he and fellow conservatives had no intention of rescinding their aggressive demands in the funding fight as the September 30 deadline loomed.
What followed was a string of leadership stumbles from McCarthy, culminating in what amounted to a showdown arguably over nothing. At the start of last week, the California lawmaker pushed ahead with a plan pitched by hard-liners and introduced a series of stand-alone spending bills to fund key parts of the government next year. On Thursday, the House passed three of these bills, which would fund defense, homeland security, and state and foreign operations. But the fourth, an agriculture spending bill, failed. McCarthy hailed the votes as victories. But since the bills included massive cuts and culture-war poison pills unpalatable to the Democratic-controlled Senate and Biden, the showing was nothing more than political theater.
On Friday, the House voted on a short-term continuing resolution that would have funded the government until the end of October. The measure, largely negotiated by Republican Byron Donalds, didn’t just fail to garner any Democratic votes; it failed spectacularly in a vote of 232 to 198, with 21 Republicans voting against it. Even if it had passed, the stopgap bill would have likely been doomed in the Senate, given its low spending cap and the inclusion of hard-line border-security measures.
Ultimately, McCarthy made an about-face and introduced a continuing resolution, one quite similar to the measure put forward by senators Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell, that would keep the government open and include disaster relief but—unlike the Senate version—would not include additional funding for Ukraine. The bill passed the House in an overwhelming vote of 335 to 91 and cleared the Senate in a vote of 88 to 9.
But keeping the government open came at a cost. For the hard-liners within McCarthy’s caucus, working with Democrats was always a nonstarter. As Gaetz told VF last week: “Kevin McCarthy can’t work with Democrats to continue Joe Biden’s big spending agenda and expect to remain the Republican Speaker. He may remain the Speaker, but he’ll be serving at the pleasure and under the direction of Democrats.”
Turns out, McCarthy is no longer serving at the pleasure of either party.
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