WASHINGTON — California Republican Kevin McCarthy became House speaker in January to a loud cheer on the House floor after surviving 15 rounds of voting and winning a battle of wills with his critics. Almost exactly nine months later, he became the first speaker in history to lose the job at the hands of some of those same critics in the same spot, this time amid a chorus of stunned gasps.
Democrats who voted along with eight Republicans to strip McCarthy of the job, 216 to 210, said the seeds for his undoing were planted that day in January, when he made a deal with his hard-right detractors to allow any single member to call a vote on his ability to remain in the job, at any time. That decision had tormented McCarthy his entire tenure, empowering his right flank and dictating his strategy at nearly every turn.
House Democrats chose Tuesday to not save him, citing a litany of areas where they felt their trust had been broken. Their decision to hold together rendered McCarthy his unprecedented fate.
At the center of that strategy was Representative Katherine Clark of Revere, the second-ranking House Democrat, who as the party’s whip helped hold the party together in its opposition to McCarthy. She said the choice was made because of Democrats’ values.
“We’ve seen a House GOP overtaken by extremists . . . and there’s a failure of trust with Kevin McCarthy,” Clark said as she was leaving the House floor from the vote. “You saw Democrats united that we’re going to stand for American families, we’re going to stand for democracy and our Constitution.”
The day began with uncertainty, as Democrats and Republicans gathered in separate cavernous rooms on opposite sides of the House basement. In one, McCarthy announced to his members they would vote that afternoon on his fate, expressing confidence he would survive.
In the other, House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries played a recent video clip of McCarthy trashing Democrats on a Sunday show shortly after they helped him to pass a temporary funding bill that averted a government shutdown.
The mood was “somber,” Clark said. But bits of applause were heard as members finished their breakfasts of eggs, yogurt, and fruit, and lunchboxes from local restaurants were wheeled in to accommodate the lengthy gathering.
“Kevin McCarthy is a liar,” said Newton Massachusetts Representative Jake Auchincloss, summing up the theme of Democrats’ conversations about what to do. “Leadership requires trust, and there’s no trust. And so without trust, there is no incentive for negotiation.”
It was the first moment since January that House Democrats had any true power in the House, with the option to save McCarthy or negotiate a deal to do so. But they emerged from the meeting with a clear message: He was on his own.
Democratic leadership reiterated their position shortly before the scheduled vote to move forward with the no confidence motion, saying in a letter to colleagues that they would vote against keeping McCarthy in the job. Clark sent a whip notice to members shortly thereafter urging them to vote to remove McCarthy.
Meanwhile, Republicans who also voted against McCarthy said his last-minute efforts to change their minds also fell flat.
Representative Tim Burchett, a Tennessee Republican, voted to oust McCarthy because he believed the party was going in the wrong direction and he opposed the temporary spending bill. But a recent conversation with McCarthy made up his mind, Burchett said.
”When I make a statement that I’m praying about it, I am praying about it,” he said of his decision on the speaker vote. “Then when I get a call from the speaker and he belittles that, to me that shows another reason why we need to change our leadership, because you mock God and that’s not where you need to be.”
It was after McCarthy averted a government shutdown by pushing through a temporary extension of funding without any conservative measures that Republican Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida filed the motion to remove him. But Democrats said McCarthy’s other decisions that weekend, including to disparage Democrats, also helped cost him their backing.
Most Democrats pinpointed the start of the fraying McCarthy trust as Jan. 6, 2021, when he initially blamed Donald Trump for the insurrection on the House floor, only to visit Trump at his Florida resort the following week and return to currying Trump’s favor. They noted McCarthy struck a deal with President Biden to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for keeping non-defense government spending roughly flat in 2024, then caved to the wishes of his right flank and began moving government funding bills that fell far short of that benchmark. And they noted McCarthy agreed to the one-member threshold for calling the no confidence vote.
“Kevin McCarthy got himself into this,” said Springfield Representative Richard Neal, a committed supporter of the institution of the House who expressed no desire to save McCarthy for the good of the body. “Let me give you a Machiavellian position here, that I think that once you seal the deal, you have to take the consequences.”
“This is someone who betrays his word on pretty much a daily basis,” said Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who was booted off the intelligence committee by McCarthy as retribution for his key role in managing Trump’s first impeachment.
McCarthy told reporters Tuesday morning that he was confident he’d keep his job and didn’t expect nor need Democrats to bail him out. But then he acknowledged his difficult math. He also noted that if his decision to put a temporary funding bill on the floor last weekend to avert a shutdown was the reason, he could live with that.
“If five Republicans go with Democrats then I’m out,” he acknowledged. “Keeping government open and paying our troops was the right decision, I stand by that decision. But at the end of the day, if I have to lose my job over it, so be it.”
Ultimately, the number was eight Republicans against him.
McCarthy first failed at a vote to kill the effort against him. As that vote was underway, Democrats were in good spirits, standing, chatting, and laughing with each other. Republicans, meanwhile, mostly sat quietly on their side of the House floor. McCarthy outwardly projected nonchalance, laughing and chatting with colleagues even as he stole glances at the vote tally. But occasionally he showed signs of nerves, rapidly tapping a card in his hand.
Then in the second vote, as lawmakers were called one by one in alphabetical order to vote on his fate, the room was somber. McCarthy sat stoically, gripping the side of his chair and staring mostly straight ahead. House Democratic leaders sat together, occasionally looking at notes but mostly sitting calmly as their caucus voted unanimously.
At the end of the vote, after a heavy silence, the result was announced. “The office of speaker of the House of the United States House of Representatives is hereby declared vacant,” said Arkansas Representative Steve Womack, who was presiding.
Amid the gasps that followed, a woman’s voice called out, “Now what?”
Tensions ran high after the vote and it was clear that new fractures were created in an already divided legislative body. Representative Mike Lawler, a New York Republican who supported McCarthy, said what was most frustrating was “that you had eight selfish [expletive] just upend the Republican majority for no reason.”
But asked about an idea floated by Representative Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, who was suggesting to reporters nearby that he thought the party could lure enough moderate Republicans to make Jeffries speaker, Lawler dismissed the suggestion.
”The Democrats just joined together with Matt Gaetz . . . so whatever hopes of a bipartisan compromise, you can kiss that goodbye,” Lawler said.