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In Dramatic Vote, McCarthy Becomes First House Speaker to be Ousted in U.S. History

6 minute read

For the first time in American history, a Speaker of the House has been stripped of the gavel. 

A small group of Republican hardliners led by Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida provided the pivotal votes on Tuesday needed to remove Speaker Kevin McCarthy from his leadership position, marking a dramatic but expected end to McCarthy’s contentious 10-month tenure as leader of the House and setting the stage for an intense intraparty search for his replacement.

The move to oust McCarthy began after the California Republican relied on Democrats to avert a government shutdown. Gaetz, after days of warning and mounting tension, went on the House floor on Monday night to introduce a resolution that declared the speakership vacant, triggering an exceedingly rare process to compel a vote to determine whether McCarthy would retain his post as Speaker. All Democrats present and 8 Republicans supported the measure in a 216-210 vote that followed an hour of floor debate, during which hard-right Republicans railed against their own leader and verbally sparred with his defenders while Democrats listened silently.

“Chaos is Speaker McCarthy,” Gaetz said. “Chaos is somebody who we cannot trust with their word.”

But others argue the chaos is what comes next. There’s no clear consensus on which lawmaker might be elected to replace McCarthy, and so far no Republican has put themself forward to serve as Speaker. Republican Rep. Tom Cole, a key McCarthy ally, urged members to “think long and hard before you plunge us into chaos” by voting to vacate the speakership. “He put his political neck on the line, knowing this day was coming, to do the right thing—the right thing for the country,” Cole said, referring to McCarthy’s efforts to end the government shutdown.

Gaetz's motion has thrust the House into uncharted territory. Only two other speakers in history have faced similar motions to vacate, neither of which succeeded: once in 1910 and more recently in 2015 when Rep. Mark Meadows attempted to oust Speaker John Boehner. (That motion was not introduced on the floor, but it ultimately led to Boehner's resignation from Congress.)

The decision to boot McCarthy came on the heels of his strategic maneuver to avert a government shutdown over the weekend, when he relied on Democratic votes to pass a clean stopgap spending bill after Gaetz’s faction refused to back the House GOP measure. Conservatives said that McCarthy, who made a series of pledges to win the speakership after a marathon 15 rounds of voting in January, broke his word to conservatives by striking the short-term deal. 

"It is becoming increasingly clear who the Speaker of the House already works for, and it's not the Republican conference," Gaetz declared on Monday as he argued for McCarthy's removal. He criticized McCarthy's reliance on Democratic support to pass the funding bill and accused him of deceiving his fellow Republicans during spending negotiations and making undisclosed agreements with Democrats, particularly regarding funding for Ukraine, a matter that many conservatives vehemently opposed.

The move by Gaetz represented a significant escalation in the ongoing power struggle between McCarthy and the hardliners in his party. Since McCarthy's election as Speaker in a chamber where his party holds a razor-thin five-seat majority, more than five Republicans have intermittently threatened to challenge his leadership, subjecting him to numerous votes of confidence, some of which were politically painful for McCarthy and moderate Republicans.

This bitter feud between Gaetz and McCarthy has roots dating back to McCarthy's initial ascent to the speakership. In January, Gaetz took to the House floor to accuse McCarthy of engaging in questionable financial dealings, a narrative that continued to simmer. As a concession to Gaetz and the 19 other Republicans who initially opposed his speakership, McCarthy altered House rules to enable any member to call for a snap vote on his ouster—which ultimately led to his failure to keep the position. 

Still, the ultimate success of Gaetz's bid to remove McCarthy wasn’t assured, as it hinged on the support of some fellow Republicans and all Democrats. Even some Republicans who had expressed reservations about McCarthy's leadership weren’t on board with Gaetz’s plan. “Mr. McCarthy is an accurate reflection of the current House Republican Conference,” Rep. Dan Bishop, a rightwing North Carolina Republican who has sparred with McCarthy, said in a statement before voting no on the resolution to vacate the speakership. 

In the days leading up to the vote, several moderate and conservative-leaning Democrats indicated that they would be hesitant to punish McCarthy for his efforts to work across the aisle and prevent a government shutdown. Others saw no reason to bail him out, given the series of concessions McCarthy had made to appease the right flank of his party, including opening an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden and reneging on spending agreements made with the President during the debt ceiling crisis. 

But in the end, every Democrat present voted for the motion to vacate. In a statement released early Tuesday afternoon, House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries announced that Democrats would not lend their support to McCarthy: “Under the Republican majority, the House has been restructured to empower right-wing extremists, kowtow to their harsh demands and impose a rigid partisan ideology,” he said. 

Several Democrats echoed that sentiment ahead of the vote. “Republican leadership is in such a dysfunctional state and we need them to be functional in order to take up things for the American people,” Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, tells TIME.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat, said ahead the vote that McCarthy is “likely the most unprincipled person to ever be speaker of the House” before listing off reasons she would not back him. “He’s disdainful, he lies about us, he lies about the process of governance. It’s not even a question of whether or not we should take any particular action,” she told reporters.

Gaetz's move, while celebrated by his supporters, incited the ire of McCarthy's allies within the Republican Party, who viewed the push as a publicity stunt driven by personal animus. “I cannot conceive of a more counterproductive and self-destructive course,” Rep. Tom McClintock, a Republican from California, said on the House floor. McCarthy remained stoic throughout the vote Tuesday, occasionally smiling but making little eye contact with his detractors.

With McCarthy removed from his leadership position, House Republicans will now look to find a replacement that can appease both far-right members and moderates in the party. (Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina will serve as acting Speaker until a new one is elected.) Asked on Monday if he had any lawmakers in mind for the job, Gaetz suggested House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican and McCarthy ally.

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Write to Nik Popli at nik.popli@time.com