Dissident Republicans in the U.S. House voted with Democrats on Tuesday to oust Kevin McCarthy as speaker, a historic move that came just nine months after he secured the gavel following days of negotiating with the GOP’s right flank and 15 rounds of voting.
It wasn’t immediately clear after the vote how the House would proceed in the coming days, having entered uncharted territory. No speaker has ever before been removed by the House. North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry was named speaker pro tem until the election of a new speaker, and he sent the House into a recess.
The 216-210 vote on a motion to vacate, which Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz filed Monday evening, capped off months of growing dissent among a small group of House Republicans.
Republican Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Ken Buck of Colorado, Tim Burchett of Tennessee, Eli Crane of Arizona, Gaetz, Bob Good of Virginia, Nancy Mace of South Carolina and Matt Rosendale of Montana voted to remove McCarthy.
They also voted against tabling the motion, which took place just before the vote and would have stopped the process from moving forward.
Warren Davidson of Ohio, Cory Mills of Florida and Victoria Spartz of Indiana voted against tabling, but for keeping McCarthy as speaker.
All House Democrats present voted to declare the office of the speaker vacant.
Only three motions to vacate in history
So far, there have only been three instances where a motion to vacate was filed, one in March 1910, one in July 2015 and the one this month.
McCarthy said before the vote that he was calling Gaetz’s bluff, though he appeared to accept he would be ousted as speaker.
“At the end of the day, if you throw a speaker out that has 99% of their conference, that kept the government open and paid the troops — I think we’re in a really bad place for how we’re going to run Congress,” McCarthy said.
The California Republican said he believed his support for passing a bipartisan short-term spending bill on Saturday, preventing a partial government shutdown, was the “right decision.”
“I stand by that decision and at the end of the day, if I have to lose my job over it, so be it,” McCarthy said. “I’ll continue to fight.”
Gaetz and other hard-line conservatives have publicly rebuked McCarthy for not holding to a private deal he struck with them in January in order to secure the speakership.
The group of GOP lawmakers, some of whom are in the Freedom Caucus, have lamented McCarthy striking an agreement with President Joe Biden in May to avoid a default on the nation’s debt and for relying on Democratic votes to pass the short-term government spending bill.
Gaetz, speaking Monday on the floor, called on McCarthy to detail whether he had brokered a private deal with Biden to hold a vote on legislation that would provide additional aid to Ukraine in its fight against the Russian invasion. He also criticized McCarthy for reportedly adding border security to those talks.
“I get that a lot of folks might disagree with my perspectives on the border or Ukraine,” Gaetz said. “But could we at least agree that no matter how you feel about Ukraine or the Southern border, they each deserve the dignity of their own consideration and should not be rolled together.”
House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries released a “Dear Colleague” letter just before the vote announcing House Democrats would vote to vacate the chair.
“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,” Jeffries wrote.
The group of Republican dissenters who voted to remove McCarthy represents a small fraction of the House Republican Conference, many of whom backed McCarthy on the floor Tuesday and defended his record.
GOP supporters: ‘He did the right thing’
“He’s being punished because he did the right thing on Saturday and made sure that the government didn’t shut down, and we bought more time to continue the appropriations process,” GOP Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma told reporters.
Cole offered the motion to table on behalf of McCarthy.
Arkansas GOP Rep. Steve Womack told reporters before the vote the motion to vacate was a distraction and a “fool’s errand.”
Womack, who sits on the Appropriations Committee, said Republicans should focus on clearing all 12 appropriations bills before the new mid-November deadline.
“We just took the country to the brink of a shutdown for the purpose of what? Moving the rest of our appropriation bills,” Womack said. “We need to finish our work, and the only way to do that is to pass the rule and get these bills across the floor and move to the Senate in conference.”
Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota told reporters Gaetz’s push for a motion to vacate showed there are “middle school grudges” against McCarthy.
“I think that Matt (Gaetz) is making a huge error,” Johnson said. “I think America is gonna be less well off because of his efforts. I think chaos has not served this country.”
Republican Rep. Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma told reporters she was skeptical of the motivations some have stated for removing McCarthy as speaker.
“This isn’t about the appropriations process, and don’t be fooled. (Gaetz) wants to talk about the fact that we should have been doing our (appropriations) work in August. Look, it didn’t happen. So now is the time, and instead of focusing on that for the next 43 days, we’re going to be focusing on this,” Bice said.
GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania told reporters that Republicans should focus on clearing legislation to fully fund the government and work on getting aid to Ukraine.
“If we vacate the chair, the government will shut down, our credit rating will go down, interest rates will go up,” Fitzpatrick said. “Ukraine will be victimized and lose that war to Russia. That is what is at stake here.”
Democrats cheer behind closed doors
Democrats huddled behind closed doors for nearly 90 minutes Tuesday morning to plot a path forward and allow members to speak for up to one minute about the motion to vacate. Rounds of applause and some cheering could be heard from the hallway outside the meeting.
Democratic lawmakers said after the meeting that McCarthy hadn’t built trust.
New Hampshire Democratic Rep. Annie Kuster told reporters the party had “unity of purpose” ahead of the vote.
“What has happened that all of you have witnessed and the American people have witnessed is that the current speaker has chosen to cater to a very extreme element that, in my view, it’s sort of a post-truth world,” Kuster said. “I think you can see that within his own caucus, but you can certainly see it in the way he’s treated us and the American people.”
Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state Democrat, told reporters that the House GOP could “wallow in their pigsty of incompetence and inability to govern.”
Jayapal said that Republican infighting about who their speaker should be was not an issue that Democrats felt the need to solve. She also noted that McCarthy has repeatedly broken trust with Democrats, making the party reluctant to help him keep the speakership.
“Nobody trusts Kevin McCarthy, and why should we? He has broken his commitment over and over again,” Jayapal said.
McCarthy, Jayapal said, has made a series of decisions that have eroded any support he would have had from Democrats. Those include his public comments following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by pro-Trump rioters, his decision to walk away from a spending agreement he and Biden brokered earlier this year and his decision to withhold bringing a bill to the floor that would provide additional aid to Ukraine.
“Kevin McCarthy stood on the House floor and said one thing and then talked to Donald Trump and immediately did something else,” Jayapal said. “He has supported the insurrectionist president that enabled January 6 to happen and tried to obstruct the peaceful transfer of power.”
Jeffries, a New York Democrat, told reporters before the vote the party would “continue to put people over politics and to fight to make life better for everyday Americans.”
“From the very beginning that has been our objective and it will continue to be our sole focus,” Jeffries said. “We encourage our Republican colleagues, who claim to be more traditional, to break from the extremists.”
Jeffries said that Democrats were “ready, willing and able to work together with GOP lawmakers.
“But it is on them to join us to move the Congress and the country forward,” Jeffries said.
Maryland lawmakers react
Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin (D) released a lengthy and impassioned statement after the vote, noting that McCarthy’s path to the speakership in January took 15 ballots as more than a dozen far-right conservatives blocked him during a four-day stalemate. Raskin, having just been diagnosed with Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma in late December, attended every floor vote, backing a bid by Democrats to install Jeffries as the first Black speaker.
“After nine months of working with Minority Leader Jeffries and observing his high character, his unflappable demeanor, his complete trustworthiness, his deep integrity, his remarkable efficiency and his overriding commitment to the common good of the American people, I am more convinced than ever that he is precisely the Speaker we need right now to end the GOP reign of error and to move America beyond the continuing Machiavellian games played by Kevin McCarthy, Representative Matt Gaetz and other GOP Members on everything from the national budget to the debts of the country to American support for the people of Ukraine,” Raskin said Tuesday evening.
Raskin added that he would vote for Jeffries not just 15 times, but “15,000 times,” unless Jeffries asked him to do something different.
“With complete unity and exceptional leadership, Democrats are clearly the only party capable of governing in the House, and Jeffries is clearly the best candidate for Speaker and for the stability and progress of the institution. The question is not whether McCarthy can find a dozen Democrats or more to ‘save him’ from the MAGA faction he has been appeasing all year. The question is whether there are just six thoughtful Republicans who are ready to do the obvious thing and vote for Hakeem Jeffries for Speaker,” Raskin’s statement continued. “That is the goal I will be fighting for on the floor in this surprising new process created by GOP chaos.”
Congressman Kweisi Mfume (D-7th) said “McCarthy unquestionably failed to establish common ground in the House of Representatives or even within his own party.”
“Democrats remain united behind Leader Hakeem Jeffries in our quest to elect a balanced, fair, and ethical Speaker to reunite the Congress and move the nation forward,” he added.
Rep. John Sarbanes (D-3rd) said in a statement that he was elected to represent his constituents’ “best interests in Congress and their best interests are not served by Kevin McCarthy’s leadership. Due to his failure to demand accountability for those who sought to undermine our democracy on January 6th and his refusal to uphold the bipartisan budget agreement that Congress reached earlier this year, I voted to remove Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House.”
Rep. David Trone (D-6th) said McCarthy had shown his “true colors” in Congress.
“He’s undermined our democracy, voting against the certification of the 2020 election three times and turning his back on the committee investigating the January 6th insurrection, Trone said in a written statement. “He’s actively pursued an impeachment of President Biden founded on political retaliation and bad faith. He’s bent to the far-right extremes of his party — a tyranny of 20 — to grind our chamber’s effectiveness and productivity to a halt time and time again.”
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-5th), a two-time House majority leader, called Tuesday “a sad day for the House of Representatives.”
“As someone who has always had the utmost concern for preserving the integrity of this institution, I regret the circumstances in which the House found itself today,” he said in a written statement. “This day was, in part, a result of Republicans trying to accommodate a small, willful group of extreme MAGA Republican members, who will not be satisfied with any compromise that can be enacted in the political context that currently exists.”
Disputes over spending, Ukraine
Just hours before a shutdown would have begun this weekend, Congress approved a short-term bill to fund the government until Nov. 17. The House passed the stopgap measure in a 335-91 vote, with 90 Republicans opposing it. Senators approved the bill 88-9, with nine Republicans opposed.
The deal didn’t include additional funding for Ukraine, though Biden said Sunday that he and McCarthy agreed to find the votes needed to pass a supplemental package with military assistance and humanitarian relief for the war-torn country as it resists further invasion by Russia.
The stopgap funding bill to avert a government shutdown was not the only time McCarthy worked with Democrats to avert financial calamity. In May the speaker brokered a deal with Biden to raise the debt ceiling and keep the U.S. from defaulting on its loans.
The deal, signed into law as the Fiscal Responsibility Act, included agreed-upon spending levels for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
McCarthy has been unable to unify his far-right members around the established spending levels during this year’s appropriations process, bringing the federal government within hours of a partial shutdown.
House lawmakers on the far-right of the spectrum have been browbeating McCarthy since before he took the gavel.
The California Republican won the speaker election in the early morning hours of Jan. 7 on the 15th ballot — the most rounds of voting for a speaker since before the Civil War — after making several concessions to the ultra-conservative wing of his party, including a change to the motion to vacate to allow any one member to essentially call for a no-confidence vote on the speaker.
McCarthy also reserved spots on key committees for far-right members and entered a handshake deal with members of the House Freedom Caucus, promising to cut spending levels.
Danielle E. Gaines and Samantha Dietel contributed to this report.
This breaking news story may be updated