Speaker Kevin McCarthy was voted out of office Tuesday in an extraordinary showdown, a first in U.S. history forced by a group of far-right conservatives that plunged the House of Representatives and its Republican leadership into chaos.
McCarthy’s main rival, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, forced the vote on the “resignation motion” by rallying more than a handful of the speaker’s conservative Republican critics and many Democrats who say he is unworthy of leadership.
The next steps are uncertain, but there is no obvious successor to lead the Republican majority in the House.
There was silence as the chairman ended the vote by 216 votes to 210 and said the office of speaker “is hereby declared vacant.”
Moments later, a top McCarthy ally, Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., took the gavel and was named speaker pro tempore, under House rules, to serve until a new speaker is elected.
The House then quickly went into recess so lawmakers could meet and discuss the way forward.
It was a stunning moment for the battle-hardened McCarthy, a punishment fueled by growing grievances but also sparked by his decision over the weekend to work with Democrats to keep the federal government open rather than risk a shutdown.
In an earlier vote, the motion voted 218-208 against filing, with 11 Republicans approving.
The House of Representatives then opened a plenary debate, unprecedented in modern times, before the next round of voting.
McCarthy of California insisted he wouldn’t make a deal with Democrats to stay in power – not that he could have counted on their help even if he had asked for it.
Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries said in a letter to his colleagues that he wanted to work with Republicans but was unwilling to cast the votes necessary to save McCarthy.
“It is now the responsibility of GOP members to end the Republican civil war in the House,” Jeffries said, announcing that Democratic leadership would vote in favor of the motion to remove the speaker.
As the House fell silent, Gaetz, a key ally of Donald Trump, rose to present his proposal. Gaetz is a leader of the far-right Republicans who fought McCarthy in his long battle for the gavel in January.
“It’s a sad day,” Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma said at the start of the debate, urging his colleagues not to plunge the Republican majority in the House of Representatives “into chaos.”
But Gaetz fired back during the debate: “Chaos is Speaker McCarthy.”
McCarthy’s fate was deeply uncertain as the heated debate unfolded. Many of the complaints against the speaker centered on his truthfulness and his ability to keep the promises he had made since January to win the gavel.
But a long line of McCarthyites, including Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a founding leader of the conservative Freedom Caucus, stood up for him: “I think he kept his word.” And some did so with passion. Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., waved his cellphone and said it was “disgusting” that right-wing colleagues were out and about fundraising and asking for donations in text messages.
At the Capitol, both Republicans and Democrats met privately ahead of the historic afternoon vote.
Behind closed doors, McCarthy told his fellow Republicans, “Let’s move on.”
“If I counted the number of times someone tried to knock me out, I would have been gone long ago,” McCarthy said at the Capitol after the morning briefing.
McCarthy insisted that he did not ask Democratic Leader Jeffries across the aisle for help with the votes to stay in office, nor did he ask for anything in return.
During the hour-long meeting in the Capitol basement, McCarthy invoked Republican Speaker Joseph Cannon, who more than 100 years ago confronted his critics head-on by calling their bluff and staked the vote itself on his downfall. Cannon survived this deactivation attempt, marking the first time the House of Representatives actually voted to consider removing its speaker. A more recent threat from 2015 failed to make it to the vote.
McCarthy received three standing ovations during the private meeting – one when he came to the microphone to speak, another time during his speech and finally when he finished, according to a Republican at the meeting who was granted anonymity to discuss it to speak.
At one point, there was a show of hands in support of McCarthy and it was “overwhelming,” said Rep. Ralph Norman, R-R-S.C., a member of the House Freedom Caucus.
Gaetz was present but did not speak in the room.
Across the street in the Capitol, Democrats gathered for a lengthy discussion and agreed on one common point: McCarthy could not be trusted, several lawmakers in the room said.
“I think it’s safe to say there’s not a lot of goodwill in this room for Kevin McCarthy,” said Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass.
“Ultimately, the country needs a speaker it can rely on,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. “We don’t trust him. Your members don’t trust him. And you need a certain level of trust to be the speaker.”
The speaker’s ouster throws House Republicans into chaos as they try to find a new leader. McCarthy himself needed 15 rounds of voting over several days in January before he secured the support of his colleagues and received the gavel. There is no obvious GOP successor.
Trump, the former president and the Republican front-runner in the 2024 race to replace Biden, complained about the chaos. “Why do Republicans always fight among themselves,” he asked on social media.
A key McCarthy ally, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., took to social media to demand support for “our speaker” and an end to the chaos that has rocked the Republican majority.
Republicans were upset that McCarthy had relied on Democratic votes Saturday to approve the temporary measure to keep the government running until Nov. 17. Some would have preferred a government shutdown as they fight for deeper spending cuts.
But Democrats were also upset that McCarthy walked away from the debt deal he struck with Biden earlier this year that already set the level of federal spending, while encouraging his right flank to push for drastic spending cuts.
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking, Stephen Groves and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.