Why House Democrats Refused to Save McCarthy

5 minute read

For the first time in U.S. history, a motion to vacate the Speaker of the House has succeeded, with the chamber’s Democrats shrugging as a small group of mostly far-right Republicans provided the crucial votes to oust Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

On Tuesday, Democrats voted unanimously alongside Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida and seven other GOP members to remove McCarthy as Speaker. Despite talk over the weekend that some Democrats might cut a deal with McCarthy to save him, the Speaker ultimately refused to offer members of the opposition party any concessions, leaving Democrats united against him. In the narrowly divided House, only a handful of Republicans needed to join Democrats to create the majority needed to win the vote. 

Even though the effort to oust McCarthy was instigated by Republicans, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries urged House Democrats to join them in voting against the Speaker. In a statement released before the vote, Jeffries explained his reasoning, saying McCarthy had brought this on himself by using his short tenure as Speaker to cater to extremists in his party. He pointed to the chaotic 15 rounds of voting that the House endured back in January to pick McCarthy as Speaker, a process in which McCarthy made concessions to far-right Republicans, including allowing any one member to force a motion to vacate. 

“It is now the responsibility of the GOP members to end the House Republican Civil War,” Jeffries wrote. “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.”

Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was out of town and missed the vote, also laid the chaos at the feet of the GOP, and said Democrats had no reason to help McCarthy. 

“The Speaker of the House is chosen by the Majority Party,” Pelosi wrote on X, the site formerly known as Twitter. “In this Congress, it is the responsibility of House Republicans to choose a nominee & elect the Speaker on the Floor. At this time there is no justification for a departure from this tradition. The House will be in order.” 

Over the weekend, as talk of Gaetz’s plan to push for a vote to oust McCarthy intensified, Washington was buzzing with talk of even just a handful of Democrats making a deal with  Republican leadership to shield the Speaker. Moderate Democrats remained under pressure through Tuesday afternoon. 

In the end, no rank-and-file Democrats felt moved to help McCarthy or his party get out of a mess of their own making. 

“I think he’s likely the most unprincipled person to ever be Speaker of the House,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat, told reporters ahead of the vote. “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.”

In a final, doomed plea ahead of the vote, it was Rep. Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican and a McCarthy ally, who suggested that Democrats might be making the right political move for them. 

“With this record of success that we’ve seen Kevin McCarthy and a Republican majority produce in a Washington run by Democrats, we’re going to throw that away, resulting in more liberal outcomes, not more conservative ones,” McHenry told his colleagues. “So I understand why the left is where you are today. You don’t like an effective conservative majority, and I don’t blame you. But on the right, rethink this.” 

Democrats are running some risk in that they are gambling that the next Speaker of the House won’t turn out to be worse, in their assessments. But many Democrats in the chamber felt helping prop up McCarthy’s speakership carried its own risks.

“This is the Republican’s civil war and they haven't shown they can govern,” California Rep. Ted Lieu, the vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, told TIME immediately after the speakership vote. “Hopefully the Republicans will be able to put forward someone that doesn't break his word and we'll see what happens. I am voting for Hakeem Jeffries.”

Asked what happens if the next Speaker isn’t Jeffries and refuses to work with Democrats, Lieu said “It’s too early to speculate.”

Following the vote on the motion to vacate, McHenry was selected as Speaker Pro Tem of North Carolina off of a secret list put together by McCarthy. McHenry immediately called for a recess before the House began the process of selecting a new Speaker. When those votes do happen, McCarthy could continue to put his name forward. Possible successors include Majority Leader Steve Scalise, Majority Whip Tom Emmer, and Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, all of whom backed McCarthy and say that they are not interested in replacing him.

“Right now I think all of us are just trying to think through what the path ahead is,” California Rep. Pete Aguilar, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, told TIME immediately after the vote. “It’s incredibly unfortunate that we're in this situation, but the reality is Kevin McCarthy ran to the extremes at every possible turn from the very beginning. That's why it took them 15 votes, he made a lot of promises.”

Nik Popli contributed reporting.

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