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Kevin McCarthy Is Out
A speakership that started in turmoil ends in chaos.
Good afternoon and welcome to Press Pass, The Bulwark’s twice-weekly newsletter on Congress, campaigns, and the way Washington works—or doesn’t, as the case may be.
Today: Kevin McCarthy’s speakership has come to an end, in an unprecedented vote to “vacate the chair” completed minutes ago on the House floor. Read on for a rundown of the day’s events. Tonight at 8:00 p.m. EDT, I will be joining Jonathan V. Last and Tim Miller for a special livestream to discuss—click here to watch.
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The Republican-led House of Representatives has not functioned very well—that’s been established. But when it has functioned, it has often been in moments when House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has ditched the Republican hardliners in the Freedom Caucus and their allies to work with moderates across the aisle. In that way, the chamber can still get things done, like avoiding costly government shutdowns or averting a default on the national debt.
The problem, as former top Paul Ryan aide Brendan Buck aptly put in June, is that “what the Freedom Caucus craves more than anything is relevance,” and when they are made to feel irrelevant through bipartisan cooperation, they throw tantrums to make themselves relevant again. Such has been the case not just during the 118th Congress, but increasingly over the past decade.1
This all came to a head Monday evening when Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.)—fresh off causing another embarrassing situation that forced McCarthy to put the Freedom Caucus in the timeout corner so that Republicans and Democrats could come together to avert a shutdown—introduced a motion to vacate.
The motion to vacate is a tool for removing the speaker; the Freedom Caucus required McCarthy to include it in the chamber’s rules package in exchange for their qualified support for his speakership at the beginning of the year. It allows any individual House member to introduce a privileged resolution that forces the chamber to vote on deposing the speaker. In the technical parlance of Congress, the designation of “privileged” means a motion must be voted on or tabled within two days of its introduction. Not everything qualifies as privileged, and for good reason: forcing votes is disruptive to normal business, which can make them attention grabbing and politically volatile, as with un-investigated impeachments.
After Gaetz introduced the resolution and left, Democrats erupted in laughter on the House floor. Meanwhile, Gaetz was already strutting out on to the Capitol steps, where he basked in the attentions and literal spotlights of a crowd of reporters and cameras, telling them:
You all get all worked up that there’s gonna be some uncomfortable chaotic moment, that I’ll feel pressure from conservatives or Democrats or whomever. I feel the judgment of history. I feel the weight of that. I worry that when the history books are written about this country going down, that my name is gonna be on the board of directors here, and If this country's going down, and if we're losing the dollar, I am going down fighting. And I don't care if that means fighting Republicans, Democrats, the Uniparty, the leadership, the PACs, the lobbyists. I've had it.
McCarthy, perhaps feeling significantly better vibes than he did in early January, pushed for a vote today. We now know that was misguided. First, the House rejected a motion to table 208–218, with 11 Republicans joining all Democrats. This immediately prompted a formal vote on the motion to vacate, preceded by an hour of floor speeches.
“Chaos is Speaker McCarthy,” Gaetz railed on the floor. “Chaos is somebody we cannot trust with their word.”
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the McCarthy deputy running the time for the pro-McCarthy side, condemned the procedure as “a very sad day.”
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a previous Freedom Caucus leader who in recent years has molded and softened in his activism on the floor in order to carry it out from the position of Judiciary Committee chairman, credited McCarthy with enabling their oversight and pushback on the Biden administration, while condemning Gaetz’s resolution. “I think the speaker has kept his word,” he said. “I think we should keep him as speaker.”
At one point, Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) held up his phone showing fundraising text messages sent by Gaetz touting the motion to vacate, calling it “disgusting,” while his fellow Republicans yelled, “Shame!”
Meanwhile, Gaetz, strangely, cast himself as a voice of institutional reform—as though the messy budget process were really his motivation.
The reading clerk of the House carried out the voice vote one-by-one in alphabetical order. McCarthy lost 216–210, with the following 8 Republicans joining all Democrats in voting against McCarthy:
On the other side of the aisle, Democrats unified in opposition to McCarthy. Their decision not to bail him out follows years of what they see as repeated untrustworthy behavior from him, including but not limited to his efforts to minimize the January 6th attack and undermine the congressional investigation into it, according to sources.
Democrats also view the ordeal as one of McCarthy’s own making. They’re mostly correct about that: McCarthy granted the Freedom Caucus a (still undisclosed) set of concessions during his effort to become speaker back in January, and one of those concessions was to lower the threshold for a motion to vacate to just one member. This creates a huge opening to disrupt congressional businesses over grudges, whether they be political or personal.
With McCarthy’s removal, the fate of the House, the government funding that expires November 17, and much more is up in the air. Until a successor is elected, a speaker pro tempore will preside over the chamber, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.). McHenry was selected by McCarthy himself from a list he prepared, a protocol stemming from a post-9/11 rule2 to ensure the continuity of government. McHenry immediately recessed with an angry slam of the gavel and the House is now at a standstill.
What we witnessed today was the first such attempt to remove a speaker in more than 100 years and the first successful one in American history.
The Freedom Caucus was never less relevant than during the 116th and 117th Congresses, during which period Democrats controlled the House and Republicans had no responsibility to govern. They are at their most powerful right now, when they can squeeze their own leadership as it is forced to try, ever so slightly, to govern.
Here’s the rule governing what happens to the speakership when there is a vacancy: