On January 7th 2023, Kevin McCarthy was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives; it had taken 15 ballots but this was perhaps the most innocuous aspect of his entire tenure. Indeed, less than a year later, he was unceremoniously deposited from office in a motion from members of his own party.
This is inside the whirlwind 272 days in which Kevin McCarthy presided over the speakership of the House of Representatives.
A Stilted Start
In the 2022 Midterms, the incumbent Democrats exceeded expectations and were able to put in the best performance of a sitting government in the Midterms in decades.
Able to hold the Senate, the Democrats would lose the House however but by a far slimmer majority than many Republicans wanted.
The overturning of Roe v. Wade earlier in the year seemed to act as a flood-stopper from what many pundits referred to as an incoming “Red Wave”.
McCarthy, widely tipped to take over the House’s speakership if victorious, had earlier commented that “anywhere over 20 [seats] is a red wave.”
It was still a majority, however narrow, which should have been enough to gift McCarthy the gavel. McCarthy clearly thought so, even apparently moving into the speaker’s office before prevailing.
However, a far-right branch of Republican lawmakers made sure to block his nomination. Not only did he face a challenge from Andy Biggs, former chairman of the ultra-conservative Freedom House Caucus, who got 31 votes to McCarthy’s 188 in a Republican Party secret ballot but he was now facing a revolt from the far-right branch, one led by Lauren Boebert and, more notably, Matt Gaetz.
In a blow to McCarthy’s speakership wishes, he failed to maintain the 218 majority he was seeking, marking the first occasion in nearly a century that the speaker was not elected on the first ballot.
In the first ballot, McCarthy had the support of only 203 out of 222 G.O.P. members. As ballots kept being cast, there was actually a point in which the Republican House leader was losing votes.
After shoving, shouting, and 15 ballots, Gaetz and company broke their boycott. A call from former President Trump may have been in factor in such a decision.
In return, they were given their demands, which included committee responsibilities and a rule amendment to allow just one House member to file a no-confidence motion in the speaker – a concession that would come back to bite McCarthy.
It should also be noted that, due to the obstructors voting “present”, McCarthy earned a plurality, not a majority, of votes with 216.
The ordeal was over but as the BBC noted: “Not since 1860 in the build-up to the American Civil War has the lower chamber of Congress voted this many times to pick a speaker.”
The January 6th Tapes
Within months, McCarthy had caused an uproar.
Two years after the events, McCarthy decided to release 40,000 hours of footage from the storming of the Capitol on January 6th. This footage was given directly to Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
On his show, Trump supporter Carlson reiterated baseless accusations on the stealing of the 2020 election and used the footage to attempt to provide a revisionist history of the events that occurred on what President Biden referred to as the “darkest day” in US history.
The incident provided an obvious stick for Democrats to beat Republicans with; Democratic House leader Hakeem Jeffries called it “an egregious security breach that endangers the hardworking women and men of the United States Capitol Police.” Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer referred to the speaker’s actions as having “laid bare that this sham is simply about pandering to MAGA election deniers, not the truth.”
GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell stated he regretted McCarthy’s release of the files, chastising Carlson’s news piece and instead sided with the police’s official report.
Chief Tom Manger, chief of the United States Capitol Police, called Carlson’s report “cherry-picked,” presenting an image that was “misleading and offensive.”
McCarthy, who knowingly gave the files to the Trump-supporting MAGA extremist Carlson, had pivoted on his stance on the January 6th attack, which he denounced in the days after the events.
The Debt Ceiling Dilemma
In May, McCarthy negotiated with President Biden in what was to be one of the first bipartisan acts that would turn hard-right Republicans against him.
In January 2023, the US hit its debt ceiling or borrowing limit, with Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen noting that the US could run out of cash as soon as June 5th. After months of negotiations fell through, talks seemed doomed as the nation lunged unsteadily closer to the default date.
Payment for the military, Social Security, and Medicare are reliant on federal government borrowing amongst other services, hence not rising such a ceiling could have potentially disastrous effects.
In the weeks and days before shutdown, a cross-party scramble to raise the ceiling occurred, leading to the passing of the Fiscal Responsibility Act 2023, which added $1.5 trillion whilst suspending the ceiling until 2025; President Biden signed this into law on June 3rd.
One senior G.O.P. aid explained that the Republicans “have to pass [the bill]. If not, they’re fucked, and there’s no plan B.” Elsewhere, moderate Republicans approved the deal, with moderate Republican Senator Mitt Romney calling McCarthy “the most underestimated man in Washington D.C.”
This caused outrage in the more extremist Republican circles however. Amongst those voicing their opposition was Scott Perry, chair of the Freedom House Caucus, who commented, “This deal fails, fails completely, and that’s why these members and others will be absolutely opposed to the deal and we will do everything in our power to stop it.”
For not enacting the cuts to spending many conservative Congressmen had called for and co-operating alongside Democrats, Matt Gaetz publicly poured over the possibility of motioning to move the speaker.
Gaetz referred to McCarthy’s debt ceiling agreement as his “original sin.”
Opening An Impeachment Inquiry
During September 2023, Kevin McCarthy announced and launched an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden.
The impeachment was seen by many as a political attack on the sitting president, perhaps heightened by the need to take heat off Donald Trump, the criminally indicted G.O.P. frontrunner for 2024.
A number of Republicans opposed the inquiry, which they saw as baseless and frivolous. G.O.P. Senators and Representatives alike condemned the act, noting how there was no concrete evidence of Biden being in violation of any of the articles he was charged under.
There was, after all, no vote on the matter, with McCarthy justifying such a decision by arguing that Speaker Pelosi had done the same with Trump’s 2019 impeachment.
Amongst those attacking McCarthy’s decision was his trusty detractor Matt Gaetz, who referred to the subsequent inquiry as “failure theatre.”
It certainly did not sweeten him to Democrats either.
Averting A Government Shutdown
Having successfully avoided hitting the US debt ceiling earlier in the year, in September, Congress faced another potential crisis of a government shutdown.
Had this occurred, two million military workers and two million more civilian workers could lose pay whilst national parks, educational services, and passport procedures amongst other matters are also affected.
During the most recent government shutdown, the cost to the nation was $3 billion from the 35-day closure – the longest in US history. This shutdown was estimated to hinder the economy by 0.2% every week it lasted.
In a last-minute move that occurred just three hours before a September 30th shutdown, the Senate passed a short-term 45-day resolution which Biden subsequently signed into law. The resolution had strong bipartisan support, being voted 335-91 in the House.
However, despite cross-party agreement, it did not go down well with hard-liners.
Although Democrats were willing to relent on funding for Ukraine in desperation to pass the bill, Republicans were not able to implement the necessary cuts as desired, leading to backlash on McCarthy’s leadership.
Some high-profile figures, such as Donald Trump, even supported letting the government shut down, believing it would help tank Biden’s popularity. On his Truth Social platform, he wrote: “The Republicans lost big on Debt Ceiling, got NOTHING, and now are worried that they will be BLAMED for the Budget Shutdown. Wrong!!! Whoever is President will be blamed. UNLESS YOU GET EVERYTHING, SHUT IT DOWN! Close the Border, stop the Weaponization of ‘Justice,’ and End Election Interference.”
For McCarthy to again ‘fold’ and not drive the hard bargain wanted of him was to end his time as Speaker of the House in historic fashion.
The Speakership Gets Vacated
In the days leading up to his removal, McCarthy continued to make a number of fatal mistakes.
McCarthy, ruling out concessions to Democrats, found his back to the wall without full Republican support.
When Gaetz announced his plans to motion to vacate the chair, McCarthy called his bluff and retweeted with the words: “Bring it on.”
Gaetz attempt marked the first successful motion to vacate the speakership since 1910; it would also be the very first to succeed. As a part of the aforementioned successions, this was enough to force forward a House vote.
Indeed, in the vote, McCarthy lost 216-210 with eight Republicans joining all Democrats to knock the speaker off his perch. 216: the same number of votes that allowed McCarthy to get into office were now enough to boot him out.
The Gaetz-led resolution was supported by Republicans such as Nancy Mace and Ken Buck, hinting that there was dissatisfaction from more than just MAGA members. The latter remarked of McCarthy: “[i]f this plan with modest spending reductions is the best the GOP can provide, Americans could be forgiven for wondering what the point of a Republican majority in the House is.”
The first speaker ever removed via an in-House vote, McCarthy became the third shortest tenured holder of the office in history. At least in the case of Theodore M. Pomeroy, this was always to be temporary and Michael C. Kerr had the excuse of having died!
Fallout, Political Reaction To Gaetz
Aside from Steve Bannon, who called the rebels “architects and heroes,” Gaetz actions have caused furor from his own party. This makes sense considering 96% of House Republicans still chose to back McCarthy.
Gaetz had already made enemies with his antics in January to delay McCarthy’s confirmation. Mike Rogers had accused the far-right branch of being “legislative terrorist.”
After leading the movement to remove the speaker, he felt further backlash.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich called for Gaetz to be ostracised from the party for his actions, calling him “destructive to the conservative movement.”
One of the most vocal critics was New York Representative Antony D’Esposito. He referred to his unprecedented actions as an “act of heresy.” He further espoused his view that Gaetz hypocritically attacked McCarthy for working with Democrats whilst himself doing so, explaining: “he worked with Democrats, some of the most progressive and far-leaning left in the conference, in order to take Kevin McCarthy out. He is by every stretch of the definition a complete hypocrite.”
Representatives such as Mike Lawler and Don Bacon have been among those to issue vocal calls to exile Gaetz from the Republican Party.
Some speculate Gaetz’s actions were personal, stemming from a House Ethics investigation into allegations of him engaging in sexual activity with an underage girl.
What’s Next For The Speakership?
The Hill noted that in the aftermath that “the House is now in uncharted territory, with House members and aids unsure what will happen next.”
In the short term, McCarthy-nominated Representative Patrick McHenry will take the gavel as the Speaker pro tempore. McCarthy has refused to re-enter the race.
As for who could take over, Majority House Leader Steve Scalise and Chair of the House Judiciary Committee Jim Jordan are amongst those speculated to take over the role.
Jordan has been offered the support of Donald Trump – who himself has refused to rule out nomination – perhaps due to his support of the former president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. This is by no way a shoe-in, not just due to Trump’s toxicity to some House Republicans but also due to Jordan’s legal baggage, having refused to comply with a Congressional subpoena.
It will be a tough process to choose a speaker, especially when the Democrats lack a majority whilst Republicans are ideologically fractured.
Perhaps the Democrats have made a mistake in voting to remove McCarthy, with The Guardian noting that: “The latest tranche of $300m (£247m) in aid to Ukraine was approved overwhelmingly by the House last Thursday in a 331-117 vote, but all the 117 no votes were Republicans – more than half the party’s representatives. It was the far right of the party that ousted McCarthy and will be critical to the election of his replacement, as it is focused on cutting US funding for Kyiv.”
No progress can be made until a speaker is appointed but it is yet to be seen how the House will be able to function in its current divided state.
Kevin McCarthy will be remembered as one of the shortest-serving speakers in US history and the first – and as yet only – House of Representative Speaker to be removed by a jury of his peers.
When looking back on his actual time as Speaker of the House, perhaps the start was suitable symbology for what would turn out to be a calamitous time on top.
His tenure can also be summed up in a sentence said in September when he remarked “it’s hard to pass anything in this place” with such a slim five-seat majority. Liberal commentators were quick to point out that with the same majority in the 117th Congress (2021-2023), Speaker Pelosi was able to pass transformative legislation such as the America Rescue Plan, Inflation Reduction Act, and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The website GovTrack too notes how this Congress passed the most enacted legislation (including via incorporation) in modern history.
Although he was able to avert major crises that would have heavily impacted the nation such as the debt ceiling and shutdown, he resolved these in a way that led to an inter-party mutiny.
Perhaps McCarthy’s willingness for bipartisanship being cause for hard-liner hostility does reflect how politicisation has been boosted over the recent decades.
The fall of McCarthy was a long time coming but nonetheless shocking and historic. It seems, for the second time in US history, the McCarthy era is over, remaining an important lesson for lawmakers to ensure they are sheep being led by a lion rather than lions being led by sheep; lions who can at any moment see their leader as their prey.