WASHINGTON (AP) — Speaker Kevin McCarthy was voted out of the job Tuesday in an extraordinary showdown — a first in U.S. history, forced by a contingent of hard-right conservatives and throwing the House and its Republican leadership into chaos.
It’s the end of the political line for McCarthy, who has said repeatedly that he never gives up, but found himself with almost no options remaining. Neither the right-flank Republicans who engineered his ouster nor the Democrats who piled on seem open to negotiating.
McCarthy told lawmakers in the evening he would not run again for speaker, putting the gavel up for grabs. Next steps are highly uncertain with no obvious successor to lead the House Republican majority. Action is halted in the House until next week, when Republicans try to elect a new speaker.
“I may have lost this vote today, but as I walk out of this chamber I feel fortunate to have served,” McCarthy said at a press conference at the Capitol, alternating between upbeat assessment of his speakership and angry score-settling of those who ousted him.
Still, he said, “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
McCarthy’s chief rival, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, orchestrated the rare vote on the obscure “motion to vacate,” and pushed ahead swiftly into a dramatic afternoon roll call.
While McCarthy enjoyed support from most Republicans in his slim majority, eight Republican detractors — many of the same hard-right holdouts who tried to stop him from becoming speaker in January — essentially forced him out.
Stillness fell as the presiding officer gaveled the vote closed, 216-210, saying the office of the speaker “is hereby declared vacant.”
Moments later, a top McCarthy ally, Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., took the gavel and, according to House rules, was named speaker pro tempore, to serve in the office until a new speaker is chosen.
The House then briskly recessed as lawmakers met privately to discuss the path forward.
It was a stunning moment for McCarthy, a punishment fueled by growing grievances but sparked by his weekend decision to work with Democrats to keep the federal government open rather than risk a shutdown.
But in many ways, McCarthy’s ouster was set in motion when, in deal-making with hard-right holdouts at the start of the year, he agreed to a series of demands — including a rules change that allowed any single lawmaker to file the motion to vacate.
As the House fell silent, Gaetz, a top ally of Donald Trump, rose to offer his motion.
Leaders tried to turn it back, but the vote was 218-208, with 11 Republicans against tabling the motion, a sign of trouble to come.
The House then opened a floor debate unseen in modern times, and Republicans argued publicly among themselves for more than an hour.
“It’s a sad day,” Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma said as debate got underway, urging his colleagues not to plunge the House Republican majority “into chaos.”
But Gaetz shot back during the debate, “Chaos is Speaker McCarthy.”
As the fiery debate dragged on, many of the complaints against the speaker revolved around his truthfulness and his ability to keep the promises he has made.
Almost alone, Gaetz led his side of the floor debate, criticizing the debt deal McCarthy made with President Joe Biden and the vote to prevent a government shutdown, which conservatives opposed as they demanded steeper spending cuts.
But a long line of McCarthy supporters stood up for him, including Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a leader of the conservative Freedom Caucus, who said, “He has kept his word.” Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., waved his cellphone, saying it was “disgusting” that hard-right colleagues were fundraising off the move in text messages seeking donations.
McCarthy, of California, insisted he would not cut a deal with Democrats to remain in power — not that he could have relied on their help even if he had asked.
Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries said in a letter to colleagues that he wants to work with Republicans, but he was unwilling to provide the votes needed to save McCarthy.
“It is now the responsibility of the GOP members to end the House Republican Civil War,” Jeffries said, announcing the Democratic leadership would vote for the motion to oust the speaker.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden “hopes the House will quickly elect a Speaker.” Once that happens, she said, “he looks forward to working together with them.”
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement thanking McCarthy for “what is often a thankless role.
At the Capitol, both Republicans and Democrats met privately ahead of the historic afternoon vote.
Behind closed doors, McCarthy told fellow Republicans: Let’s get on with it.
McCarthy invoked Republican Speaker Joseph Cannon, who more than 100 years ago confronted his critics head-on by calling their bluff and setting the vote himself on his ouster. Cannon survived that takedown attempt, which was the first time the House had actually voted to consider removing its speaker. A more recent threat against John Boehner in 2015 didn’t make it to a vote but led him to early retirement.
Gaetz was in attendance, but he did not address the room.
Across the way in the Capitol, Democrats lined up for a long discussion and unified around one common point: McCarthy cannot be trusted, several lawmakers in the room said.
“I think it’s safe to say there’s not a lot of good will in that room for Kevin McCarthy,” said Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass.
“At the end of the day, the country needs a speaker that can be relied upon,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. “We don’t trust him. Their members don’t trust him. And you need a certain degree of trust to be the speaker.”
Removing the speaker launches the House Republicans into chaos heading into a busy fall when Congress will need to fund the government again or risk a mid-November shutdown.
Typically, top leaders would be next in line for the job, but Majority Leader Steve Scalise is battling cancer and Majority Whip Tom Emmer, like any potential candidate, may have trouble securing the vote. Another leading Republican, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, is also a Trump ally.
One of McHenry’s first acts in the temporary position was to oust Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi from her honorary office at the Capitol while she was away in California to pay tribute to Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
“No matter who is going to be the speaker, the challenges still remain,” Scalise said. “But I think the opportunity is there to continue moving forward.”
Asked if he was physically up to the job, Scalise said, “I feel great.”
It took McCarthy himself 15 rounds in January over multiple days of voting before he secured the support from his colleagues to gain the gavel.
Trump, the former president who is the Republican front-runner in the 2024 race to challenge Biden, complained about the chaos. “Why is it that Republicans are always fighting among themselves,” he asked on social media.
Asked about McCarthy’s ouster as he exited court in New York, where he is on trial for business fraud, Trump did not respond.
One key McCarthy ally, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who is also close with Trump, took to social media urging support for “our speaker.”
Republicans left the chamber in a daze, totally uncertain about next steps. “I honestly don’t know,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz. “This is a total disaster.”
Many had lined up to hug McCarthy, some to shake his hand.
Democrats, who have bristled at McCarthy’s leadership — cajoling them one minute, walking away from deals the next — said they were just holding back, waiting for Republicans to figure out how to run the House.
Rep, Don Bacon, R-Neb., the leader of a centrist group, said the only option was to leave the eight hardliners behind and try to work across the aisle. “We’re going to stay with Kevin,” he said. “He told us earlier he’ll never quit.”
But McCarthy made it clear Tuesday night that he would not try to win back the job.
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking, Stephen Groves, Mary Clare Jalonick and Will Weissert contributed to this report.