Kevin McCarthy is out as speaker of the US House of Representatives

Kevin McCarthy is out as speaker of the US House of Representatives
Kevin McCarthy has been removed as speaker of the US House of Representatives and said he will not run for the position again.
5 min read
04 October, 2023
McCarthy's removal from office came after less than nine months on the job [Getty]

The House of Representatives is entering uncharted territory after a far-right effort to remove fellow Republican Kevin McCarthy from the speakership succeeded thanks to support from Democrats.

A resolution — titled a motion to vacate — from Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., passed Tuesday with the support of eight Republicans and all the Democrats present and voting. The vote made McCarthy the first speaker in history to be removed from office, a bitter humiliation that came after less than nine months on the job.

The California Republican told his conference shortly after that he would not run for the job again. It is a stunning outcome in the House that shocked lawmakers of both parties and left them wondering what the future will bring.

A first in US history

The 216-210 vote that ousted McCarthy took place three days after the California Republican representative made a deal to avert a government shutdown over the federal budget, which would avoid deep spending cuts.

"If you're put in this position, you make certain choices," Suzanne Chod, professor of political science at North Central College in Illinois, told The New Arab. "That's the stark reality that hits the speaker. He did the right thing."

This marks the first time in US history that a Speaker of the House has been ousted, a development that slows down Congress until a new speaker is chosen. 

McCarthy's time as speaker, which lasted 269 days, was made vulnerable from the start, when detractors, led by right-wing Republican Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, made stipulations in exchange for voting him in. 

One of the key concessions McCarthy made to win the votes of Gaetz and his fellow dissenters was to allow a single member of Congress to file a motion to vacate.

This laid the groundwork for a vulnerable tenure, making his eventual ouster almost inevitable.

"We knew this would happen eventually because he made this deal with Gaetz and the Freedom Caucus in January," said Chot. "We knew he was hamstrung from the beginning."

She added, "If he'd stayed, he would have looked incredibly weak if the Democrats had bailed him out."

This time, Gaetz once again led the dissent against McCarthy, successfully bringing enough members to his side.

Following his ouster, McCarthy has said he won't try for the position again, possibly trying to avoid the humiliation that required a record 15 votes in January to push him through to win his position narrowly.

Who's in charge of the House now?

The newly empty House Speaker seat now leaves wide open the question as to who will be able to take on the position in a highly divided Republican House.

"It's a small minority that controls the Republican conference. The majority is so small that the House can't do anything without the Freedom Caucus," said Chot. "If you have a small majority and the party is fractured, this is what happens. It is the peculiar way the House is designed."

Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry, now the acting speaker, declared the House in recess until both parties can decide on a path forward. There is no obvious successor to lead the House Republican majority now that McCarthy has opted not to run for the job again.

Immediately after the vote, McHenry, a close McCarthy ally, was named temporary speaker or speaker pro tempore. The North Carolina Republican was picked from a list that the speaker is required to keep of members who can serve in this position in the event a chair is vacated.

McCarthy turned over that private list to the House clerk in January when he was first elected speaker. And while McHenry can serve in the temporary role indefinitely, he does not have the full power of a duly elected speaker but only those that are deemed “necessary and appropriate” for the purpose of electing someone to the job, according to the rules governing the House.

McHenry will be unable to bring legislation to the floor or take it off. He also does not have the power to issue subpoenas or sign off on any other official House business that would require the approval of the speaker.

What happens next?

The first order of business for McHenry would be to elect a new speaker.

As of now, it is unclear who House Republicans will nominate for the speakership. Some members left the chamber Tuesday determined to renominate McCarthy and vote for him for speaker until it passes. But now that he is out of the running, the path is clear for any Republican to jump in.

Some members, including Gaetz, have been broaching potential consensus candidates like Majority Leader Steve Scalise or Whip Tom Emmer, who they see as bringing the conference together. Other names up for discussion include Rep. Kevin Hern, chair of the Republican Study Committee, and Rep. Jim Jordan, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee and a favourite of the right flank of the party.

Once Republicans decide who to nominate for speaker, the House would have to vote as many times as it takes for a candidate to receive the majority of those present and voting for speaker. It can quickly become an arduous exercise, as it did in January when it took McCarthy an unprecedented 15 rounds to win the gavel.

Another speaker?

Once a speaker candidate has won a majority of the vote, the clerk will announce the results of the election.

During a normal speaker election, which takes place at the start of each Congress, a bipartisan committee, usually consisting of members from the home state of the chosen candidate, will then escort the speaker-elect to the chair on the dais where the oath of office is administered. The oath is identical to the one new members will take once a speaker is chosen.

It is unclear if that is the same process that will be followed in this instance. It is customary for the minority leader to join the successor at the speaker's chair, where they will pass the gavel as a nod to the potential future working relationship between one party leader and another.

(Agencies contributed to this article)