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The end of Speaker McCarthy

Recent turmoil shows the divide within the slim GOP House majority

Rep. Kevin McCarthy speaks to reporters at the Capitol after he was ousted as speaker of the House on Oct. 3. Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

The end of Speaker McCarthy
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“Had I as many souls as there be stars, 

I'd give them all for Mephistopheles.

By him I'll be great emperor of the world,

And make a bridge thorough the moving air,

To pass the ocean with a band of men;

I'll join the hills that bind the Afric shore,

And make that country continent to Spain,

And both contributory to my crown:

The Emperor shall not live but by my leave,

Nor any potentate of Germany.

Now that I have obtain'd what I desir'd,

I'll live in speculation of this art,

Till Mephistopheles return again.”

— “The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus,” by Christopher Marlowe.

California Congressman Kevin McCarthy wanted to be speaker of the House. He coveted the job relentlessly. He cut every deal he needed to, rose through the ranks of the House GOP, and after 15 votes spread over several days in January, he got what he desired. Like Dr. Faustus on top of the world, so too was McCarthy until his own Mephistopheles, Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, ended it all.

Gaetz made McCarthy the speaker. Gaetz holds McCarthy in contempt for reasons no one really understands except Gaetz. In January, Gaetz refused to vote for McCarthy. On the 14th vote, Gaetz changed his “no” vote to present, then signaled he would agree to McCarthy. On the 15th vote, but before one in the morning on Jan. 7, 2023, Gaetz switched to “yes,” giving McCarthy the speaker’s chair. Now it is all gone, again thanks to Gaetz.

Most of the House Republican Conference, including the ring leaders of the January effort to block McCarthy, voted against Gaetz’s motion to vacate the chair. Congressman Chip Roy, one of the most principled conservatives in the House and the mastermind of the January effort to oppose McCarthy, said it would be like changing the coach in the middle of the third quarter of a game. The House Republicans have less than 45 days to negotiate a spending package with the Senate and now must first agree to a new speaker.

This was most likely always going to happen. House conservatives have long distrusted their Republican leadership and they particularly distrusted McCarthy. McCarthy is seen as a weather vane willing to say or do anything to cling to power. In fact, McCarthy largely tied himself to Donald Trump after Jan. 6, 2021, and Trump rewarded him by standing by him and supporting his claim on the speakership against conservatives. McCarthy had condemned Trump’s actions on Jan. 6, but when Republican sentiment did not turn against Trump, McCarthy rushed to embrace the outgoing president.

A single digit number of populist malcontents, for the first time in history, ousted a speaker.

When conservatives showed they had the numbers to block McCarthy in January, McCarthy did what he had to do to get what he so desperately wanted. He cut deals. Conservatives got seats on the House Rules Committee, which oversees which legislation makes it to the floor of the House and how that legislation gets to the floor. Conservatives also got powerful seats on the Appropriations Committee and an agreement to pass appropriations bills in a timely manner to fund government. Conservatives even got what became McCarthy’s undoing—a rule that a single member of the House majority could move to vacate the chair, a procedural mechanism to oust a speaker that, in the past, required substantial backing.

McCarthy got his speakership with a four-seat majority. Things immediately went off the rails. Despite promises to pass appropriations bills by regular order, McCarthy could not steer the appropriations. Conservatives blocked more than one spending bill, including a Defense Department appropriations measure. Gaetz worked to both sabotage McCarthy’s efforts then blast McCarthy for the failure to live up to his promises.

With a four-seat majority, it required someone whom everyone in the majority trusted to keep things moving. McCarthy was never that person, but relied on his sheer shameless ability to cut deals. In the end, Gaetz kept sabotaging McCarthy’s efforts to cut deals, forcing McCarthy to rely on Democrats to get both a debt ceiling package and continuing resolution passed. Gaetz then used both against McCarthy. A single digit number of populist malcontents, for the first time in history, ousted a speaker. Strikingly, they did so without anyone willing to replace McCarthy.

On the day the House ousted Kevin McCarthy, Donald Trump sat in a courtroom in New York, now unwilling to support the man who stood so loyally by him. Democrats refused to aid McCarthy, hoping Republican chaos would undermine their claims of good governance. Matt Gaetz sent out a fundraising email then surrounded himself with a Washington press corps that hates him, but loves Republican turmoil. And the House Republican Conference went behind closed doors to figure out what to do. “The office of speaker of House of the United States House of Representatives is hereby declared vacant,” announced Rep. Steve Womack, who was serving as presiding officer.

“[McCarthy] is gone: regard his hellish fall,

Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise.”

Erick Erickson

Erick Erickson is a lawyer by training, has been a political campaign manager and consultant, helped start one of the premiere grassroots conservative websites in the world, served as a political contributor for CNN and Fox News, and hosts the Erick Erickson Show broadcast nationwide.

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