Kevin McCarthy began his 269th day as House speaker by recounting all the times he proved his doubters wrong. In January, after a series of humiliating defeats, the California Republican hung on to become speaker of the House. In the months since, he reminisced, he has narrowly averted the twin crises of a national-debt default and, this past weekend, a government shutdown. “I just don’t give up,” McCarthy told reporters after making one more plea to his party to keep him in his post.
Today, McCarthy’s streak of defying his skeptics came to an end as a group of his GOP critics joined Democrats to vote him out of the speakership after fewer than nine months in office. The unprecedented move could paralyze the House for days or even weeks, as Congress faces a November 17 deadline for funding the federal government.
Whether McCarthy is done for good as speaker remains unclear. The vote to remove him will trigger a new election, and McCarthy was coy with reporters earlier in the day about whether he’d try to reclaim the gavel. Assuming he doesn’t, his tenure atop the House—the briefest in nearly 150 years—was as historic as it was short-lived: He won the office after fighting through more ballots than any speaker in a century, and he was the first to be removed in the middle of a term by a vote of the House.
Few of McCarthy’s 54 predecessors had assumed the speakership with lower expectations. His years rising through the GOP leadership had left him with a reputation as a glad-handing lightweight with few convictions. And his majority seemed ungovernable from the start. He had just a five-vote margin over the Democrats, and was surrounded by hard-liners who demanded confrontation over compromise. McCarthy traded away much of his power as speaker during the marathon series of votes that ended, after 15 rounds, with his election. As part of the horse trade, McCarthy handed his Republican foes the means of his own destruction: the ability for a single member to call, at any time, a vote on whether to remove the speaker.
“From day one, he knew and everyone knew that he was living on borrowed time,” Representative Gerry Connolly of Virginia told me recently.
McCarthy’s most ardent Republican critic, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, had made the speaker’s ouster his singular mission even before McCarthy made a surprise reversal on Saturday to avert a government shutdown. Gaetz ultimately persuaded seven Republicans to join him in voting to remove McCarthy via a procedural maneuver known as a motion to vacate the chair.
Democrats faced their own conundrum: Was the speaker they knew a safer bet than a replacement they didn’t? Whichever Republican succeeds McCarthy is likely to be just as conservative and just as beholden to the hard-line faction that deposed him—if not more so. Yet Democrats ultimately decided that McCarthy was not worth rescuing; all 208 in attendance today voted to remove him.
The speaker had lurched to the right far more often than he governed from the center; he had joined the bulk of the GOP in forgiving former President Donald Trump for his role in fomenting the Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021, and just a month ago buckled to conservative demands to launch an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden. “It is now the responsibility of the Republican members to end the House Republican Civil War,” the House minority leader, Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, declared after a lengthy Democratic Party conference this morning, urging members to support McCarthy’s removal as speaker.
In the end, McCarthy almost survived only because Democrats struggled to get their members to the Capitol in time for the crucial votes. McCarthy, however, had suffered too many Republican defections for it to matter. The process began with a vote on a motion to table Gaetz’s motion to vacate the chair. Eleven Republicans voted with the entire Democratic caucus to clear the way for McCarthy’s ouster, more than twice as many members as the speaker could afford to lose within his own party. “The office of speaker of the House of the United States House of Representatives is hereby declared vacant,” Representative Steve Womack of Arkansas, presiding over the vote, said after the 216–210 roll call concluded.
No obvious successor has emerged. McCarthy’s top lieutenant, Majority Leader Steve Scalise, is popular with conservatives but is now undergoing treatment for blood cancer. Majority Whip Tom Emmer or GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik could also emerge as alternatives, but neither has been openly campaigning for the job.
Ever the optimist in public, McCarthy seemed to sense before the votes that the run of good fortune and political survival that had taken him to the nation’s third-highest office would not last much longer. He had struck a defiant tone, defending to the end his decision to keep the government open even if it cost him his job. “If you throw out a speaker” for averting a government shutdown, he warned reporters and, implicitly, his Republican colleagues, “then I think we’re in a really bad place.”