House Republicans debate the path forward after Kevin McCarthy loses the speakership
Back in January, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy tweaked a House rule that would later enable his ouster. He lowered the threshold from five votes to only one to force a vote to remove the House speaker.
Now, for the first time in U.S. history, the House of Representatives has voted out a sitting speaker, and it only took the initiative of one Republican, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida. After he put the wheels in motion, eight Republicans joined with a majority of Democrats to cast McCarthy out of the speakership with a 216-210 vote.
“What’s playing out here is a war within the GOP about how they want to approach the politics overspending,” said Jim Curry, director of graduate studies at the University of Utah’s political science department. “The Republicans in the House are not unified enough behind a position, plan, or approach on spending to negotiate with Democrats.”
For years, Republicans who want to see the party take a stand on government spending have clashed with Republicans who want to make incremental progress through compromise. Both sides will play a decisive role in who is chosen for House speaker in a vote next week.
The immovable objects
For eight Republicans, the path to vacating the speakership was littered with broken promises. Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina, a former McCarthy supporter, voted against him on Tuesday.
“The speaker has not lived up to his word on how the House would operate,” she wrote on X. “No budget, no separate spending bills until it was too late, a [continuing resolution] which takes spending power out of the hands of the people and puts all the power into the hands of a select few.”
When campaigning for the speakership in January, McCarthy promised conservative Republicans to bring appropriations bills individually instead of as part of one large omnibus spending package. But Republicans said they were left waiting for these bills for too long, which brought the nation too close to a shutdown.
“The speaker did not just fail to remediate the breach of the agreement he made with us in January; he accelerated the instances of breach,” Gaetz insisted from the Capitol steps after he filed the motion to vacate. “He seems to be reverting to the very unfortunate muscle memory of Washington, D.C., that has put our nation atop a $33 trillion debt that has led to $2 trillion annual deficits in our near future.”
In May, McCarthy reached a tentative two-year deal with President Joe Biden on spending. Democrats fumed that McCarthy reneged on the deal to appease Republicans by not including aid for Ukraine in some of the appropriations bills. Over the past weekend, Biden twice referred to some sort of additional agreement with McCarthy over Ukraine aid.
He said he expected McCarthy to “keep his commitment to secure the passage and support needed to help Ukraine as they defend themselves against aggression and brutality.”
This raised eyebrows in the House Freedom Caucus. Gaetz said any “secret side deal” would betray the GOP and its crackdown on spending. McCarthy said this deal over Ukraine funding never existed.
Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., flipped his support of McCarthy for personal and policy reasons. He told reporters after the vote that McCarthy had said something condescending about Burchett’s need to pray over the decision. He also said McCarthy was not helping Republicans roll back the spending tide.
“The conservative agenda is the strongest it’s ever been,” Burchett said. “We just proved it right there. We got runaway spending and we want to get control over it. Personal differences aside, I would like to talk about a real budget. Fiscal responsibility is not just a conservative thing, but everybody wants to sell memberships, to cuss the other side so it gets their clicks up and raises money. [We need to] rally around a real leader, somebody that keeps their word.”
The unstoppable force
While concerns about spending aren’t unique to the eight Republicans who voted against McCarthy, most of the remaining GOP caucus wants to prioritize actionable legislation—even if that means only a partial victory in some instances.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas., believes said means playing the hand Republicans were dealt in the 2022 midterms. Creating a strategy on spending has to stem from political realities, he argued: “How many elections did you win? What’s possible within our constitutional framework? There are a lot of lies being told to our voters like, ‘Well they didn’t do this or that; you didn’t secure the border.’ Well, it’s because we don’t have the votes. We have a slim majority in the House—what’d you think would happen?”
Now the party has to contend with a speaker election while finding a way to fund the government before November.
“We have a plan. Now we can’t fight for that,” Crenshaw said. “I have a cartel task force to take on the cartels—that’s under Speaker McCarthy. That’s now up in the air. We’re just losing out on too many issues.”
The contest also comes at the expense of unity. Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, R-Fla., spoke critically of fellow Floridian Gaetz moments after the speaker vote.
“Look, McCarthy was a very democratic speaker. I’m not necessarily one of his buddies, but I think he did a fantastic job. I think he pushed forward good legislation. He was able to negotiate with President Biden for less spending,” Salazar said. “Gaetz is really not representing anybody. … He has his own goals. We have to think collectively for the benefit of the country.”
Before closing out her statement, however, Salazar noted that Gaetz, along with the other eight Republicans who voted against McCarthy have the right to fight for the issues important to them—especially if that’s what voters elected them to do.
“Democracy is messy,” Salazar said.
Acting as speaker pro tempore, Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., gave the conference one week to sort out candidates and adjourned the House. On Wednesday, Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Steve Scalise of Louisiana threw their hats into the ring. Both are well-known names in conservative circles but face different challenges if they want to take the gavel.
Jordan leads the House Judiciary Committee, which is spearheading hearings into a possible impeachment of President Joe Biden. He is also a member of the House Freedom Caucus, though he voted against the motion to remove McCarthy. In the past, he challenged McCarthy for the speakership. In recent years, though, he has been reluctant to give up his top committee appointments. Because of his work on the Judiciary Committee, he is a polarizing figure for moderate Republicans.
Scalise has the second-best fundraising record behind McCarthy. As the current House majority leader, he’s the party’s top figure in back-room negotiations and agenda-setting. Gaetz said Scalise is “the type of person I could see myself supporting.” But Scalise is undergoing treatment for multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. He said the first month of aggressive chemotherapy has been highly effective and he feels physically up to the job.
McCarthy confirmed just hours after his removal that he would not run for the seat. McHenry said there will be a candidate forum on Tuesday and then an internal election on Wednesday. This will be a secret ballot vote within the GOP. Whoever receives the majority can move on to a chamber vote. But the Democrats are an almost guaranteed unified “nay” against any Republican, meaning McCarthy’s successor must also fight for 218 votes.
Rep. Carlos Gimenez, R-Fla., said he will not support anyone for House speaker until he or she promises to reform the motion to vacate rules that McCarthy changed as a compromise to assume the speakership. Now, disgruntled Republicans say it’s allowed a small faction to override the 96 percent of the House Republicans who supported McCarthy.
“I think the one-person motion to vacate, I frankly think it’s actually a little bit insane,” Gimenez told CNN. “The threshold must be raised to 50 percent of the Republican conference. A speaker cannot govern under constant threat by fringe hostage takers.”
Until the House has a speaker, it cannot conduct any chamber business. No committees may convene, and no bills can arrive on the floor for consideration. The House was already scheduled for a week of recess this week so members can serve in their districts, but most are staying in town for conference and caucus meetings. Candidates are hoofing it across the office buildings to ask for support.