Kevin McCarthy has made history: On Tuesday, he became the first person ever removed from the office of Speaker of the House by his colleagues.
In a stunning turn of events, a small band of Republican rebels, numbering not even a dozen, successfully ousted McCarthy from the speakership with a rarely used parliamentary tool called a motion to vacate the chair.
Joined by all House Democrats, eight House Republicans—led by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL)—overruled the vast majority of the GOP conference who supported retaining McCarthy.
The Republicans who doomed McCarthy were Reps. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), Ken Buck (R-CO), Tim Burchett (R-TN), Eli Crane (R-AZ), Bob Good (R-VA), Nancy Mace (R-SC), Matt Rosendale (R-MT), and Gaetz.
The final tally was 216 members in favor of vacating the speakership and 210 opposed.
An effort from GOP leadership to table Gaetz’s motion failed earlier on Tuesday afternoon, with 11 Republicans voting with all Democrats to advance to the up-or-down vote on McCarthy.
Immediately following the vote on Tuesday afternoon, the floor of the House became frozen, with legislative business unable to resume until members debated the motion to vacate the chair and eventually voted on it.
As McCarthy listened to the arguments against him from his GOP detractors, he sat in a chair near the front of the House chamber—smiling, laughing, and chatting with his Republican colleagues—as his gavel slipped away.
Of course, even though McCarthy is no longer the speaker, he is still in Congress. And he is free to run again for the post. He is certain, however, to face strident opposition—and it’s possible that another Republican could emerge to try to claim the gavel themselves.
The California Republican is a true political survivor, having won the gavel in the first place when he overcame the vehement opposition of 20 Republicans after 15 rounds of voting in January.
The coming hours and days of political chaos will determine whether McCarthy will survive again or whether his career atop the House GOP, and in Congress altogether, is over.
While Tuesday’s turn of events was abrupt and dramatic, the threat of removal had stalked McCarthy since he took the gavel in January.
Never fully embraced by the party’s far right flank, the California Republican had spent the year laboring to keep his most conservative members happy by offering procedural concessions and agreeing to open an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden.
Ultimately, what prompted Gaetz’s gambit was McCarthy’s decision to avert a government shutdown on Saturday by advancing a stopgap spending bill backed by Democratic lawmakers and the White House. On Saturday, over 90 GOP lawmakers voted against that so-called “clean” continuing resolution.
Right-wing hardliners viewed the move as McCarthy’s capitulation to Democrats and the Washington status quo. Single-handedly spearheading debate for the anti-McCarthy side on Tuesday afternoon, Gaetz voiced a laundry list of complaints with the legislative process and policy results under the current speakership.
But really, it had been clear for months that many Republicans had been looking for an excuse to oust the Speaker in order to score points with the conservative base and advance their own political ambitions.
For other lawmakers, McCarthy had just rubbed them the wrong way. After speaking to McCarthy on Tuesday morning, Burchett said the Speaker belittled his faith during their conversation.
“He mocked that I was praying for the right thing to do,” Burchett said after voting to oust McCarthy, “and that’s where we’re at.”
Mace, who positions herself both as a moderate and a fiery conservative, was also somewhat of a mystery. In the lead-up to the vote, it was never clear why exactly she wanted to oust McCarthy.
During debate on the motion to vacate, Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA), a top McCarthy ally, held up his phone on the House floor and showed a lawmaker’s fundraising solicitation based on their anti-McCarthy posturing.
“This is what people hate about Washington,” Graves fumed.
The debate largely played out on Tuesday among Republicans. But House Democrats’ stance was crucial in sealing McCarthy’s fate.
Ahead of Gaetz filing his motion on Monday, it was an open question whether any Democratic lawmakers would bail out McCarthy, and whether Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) would organize his caucus to vote one way or the other.
On Tuesday, however, it quickly became clear that Democrats had no appetite to send McCarthy a lifeline, viewing him as a dishonest broker.
Democrats seemed prepared to accept that McCarthy’s replacement, if there is one, could be more stridently conservative and more combative than the California Republican.
“Obviously, it’s hard to imagine anything worse,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) told The Daily Beast.
Zachary Petrizzo contributed to this report.