Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) made ignominious history Tuesday when he became the first Speaker ever to be ousted by a vote of the House.
Eight Republicans, led by longtime McCarthy foe Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), voted with Democrats to deliver a 216-210 margin in favor of ejecting the Speaker from office.
McCarthy defended his record and took shots at his tormentors during a Tuesday evening press conference. But by then he had also made known — to the consternation of his allies — that he would not seek to retake the gavel.
It’s been a series of dramatic days, and there is more turbulence to come.
Here are five big takeaways.
A government shutdown is more likely — and Ukraine aid more imperiled
The stopgap spending deal McCarthy shepherded through the House kept the government running for only another 44 days. The new deadline, by which time a longer-term deal is supposed to be enacted, is Nov. 17.
The risk of a shutdown then has grown, thanks to two big factors.
First and most obviously, the “clean” stopgap measure was the final straw that led the Gaetz faction to boot McCarthy.
The hard-liners were furious that the stopgap did not contain spending cuts or new funding for border security. They were further inflamed because McCarthy leaned on Democrats to get the measure through the House — an irony, given that they later depended on the opposition party to remove him from office.
In any event, the overall dynamic hardly incentivizes a new Speaker to attempt any such compromise measure again.
The second, more practical, factor weighing toward a shutdown is time.
The House is now basically frozen until a new Speaker is elected. While it’s true that Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) is serving as Speaker pro tempore, he has very limited powers, largely limited to facilitating an election for a proper replacement.
Right now, it is expected that candidates for Speaker will make their case Tuesday, to be followed by a vote the next day.
Even if someone claimed the gavel immediately — hardly a certainty given the shenanigans that delayed McCarthy’s elevation to the position through 15 rounds of voting in January — the process will have burnt a full week off the calendar.
A related issue is aid to Ukraine.
Although McCarthy’s stopgap measure included no such aid, Gaetz accused him of having made a “secret deal” with Democrats on the subject. McCarthy denies this.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the climb to secure more aid, as desperately sought by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, just became steeper.
A big win for Gaetz
Love him or loathe him — and the latter category has a larger membership on Capitol Hill — Gaetz won a big victory, at least in terms of an exercise of raw power.
The Florida congressman and Trump ally had set the stage for McCarthy’s eventual denouement back in January.
Gaetz was among the arch-conservatives who held out till the last moment before acquiescing to McCarthy becoming Speaker.
His stubbornness helped extract a sizable price — a rule change that allowed any member to bring a motion to vacate — essentially a motion to depose the Speaker.
Gaetz had warned in mid-September that any attempt by McCarthy to bring a clean stopgap measure to the House floor would spell the end of his Speakership.
“If Kevin McCarthy puts a continuing resolution on the floor, it’s going to be shot, chaser. Continuing resolution, motion to vacate,” Gaetz said.
That’s exactly what happened.
Gaetz’s success came at a price — fierce condemnation from some of his colleagues.
“I can’t believe he’s that stupid, to be used, to be manipulated, by AOC and others to create this outcome,” Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) told reporters Wednesday, referencing progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). “You’ve created total chaos.”
Gaetz, who has been the focus of enormous media attention throughout the process, seems unlikely to be bothered.
Democrats got rid of the devil they know…
Every Democrat present voted against McCarthy on Tuesday, quashing any sense that the opposition party might rise to his aid against the MAGA-aligned hard-liners.
It was an understandable decision in many ways. Democrats don’t think it’s their job to save the House GOP from its own dysfunction. They distrust McCarthy for many reasons, including his backing away from the debt limit deal he had reached with President Biden earlier this year, and his launching of an impeachment inquiry into the president.
McCarthy’s public fretting about why Democrats did not help him for the sake of the institution also received predictably short shrift.
“Does anyone believe for one minute that McCarthy would help elect a Dem speaker ‘for the institution’?”, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted Tuesday evening.
Still, Democrats aren’t exactly thrilled about the thought of House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) or House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) ascending to the Speakership.
More broadly, Democrats worry that the empowerment of the Gaetz wing of the GOP just spells more, and deeper, trouble ahead.
Republicans caused themselves damage — but how much?
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the machinations around McCarthy, the display of dysfunction in itself is likely to cause some damage to the Republican brand.
The question is how deep the wound will be.
On one hand, the episode plays right into the hands of Biden and the Democrats, who are eager to paint the GOP as extreme, factionalized and irresponsible.
On the other, congressional chaos tends to find its main audience among voters who track politics very closely — a cohort that is comprised mostly of partisans.
Independent voters will not necessarily have a long memory for this week’s furor, unless a later shutdown impacts them directly.
Still, the GOP is playing with fire, given the narrowness of its majority in the House.
Right now, there are 221 Republicans and 212 Democrats in the House, with two seats vacant.
That leaves Republicans with very little margin for error.
Anger burns red hot on Capitol Hill
The atmosphere of American politics has been growing venomous for years. But it’s still notable just how much anger is coursing around Capitol Hill right now.
Republicans loyal to McCarthy are incandescent about the actions of Gaetz and his band, not least because they see eight GOP votes, backed by Democrats, trumping the opinions of more than 200 members in their camp.
Several different streams are woven into Democratic anger at Republicans — a belief that the GOP has become merely a vehicle for Trumpism, that it is uninterested in governance and that is in thrall to its most partisan members.
Adding to the mix, no sooner had McCarthy fallen than it emerged McHenry was demanding Reps. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) immediately vacate their honorary “hideaway” offices that they occupied in recognition of their long tenures as Speaker and House majority leader, respectively.
The perception of a petty reprisal for the lack of Democratic support for McCarthy only deepened the enmity in Washington.
Mychael Schnell and Emily Brooks contributed.
This story was updated at 2:39 p.m.