Now that California Rep. Kevin McCarthy has been removed as speaker of the House, the search is on for a successor who can unite divided Republicans.
On Tuesday, a total of eight Republicans joined all present Democrats in voting for a motion to vacate the speaker’s chair. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) was appointed interim speaker as Republicans work to figure out who will lead their caucus, and the House, from here.
The historic removal was the result of a charge led by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) to strip McCarthy of the speakership after he cut a deal with Democrats to fund the government for another 45 days — just before it would have otherwise shut down. Gaetz brought a motion to vacate on the House floor Monday night, a procedural move that has never before been successfully used to oust a speaker.
This time, however, was different. Although McCarthy had most of his caucus behind him, he needed a majority of the House to vote against his removal to stay in power. At the moment, the GOP has a four-vote majority, making the eight Republicans who voted against him more than enough to depose the now-former speaker.
McCarthy needed Democratic support to retain the speakership, and Democrats — even those with good working relationships with the GOP — decided they wouldn’t come to his rescue. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries gave several reasons for backing McCarthy’s ouster in a letter to his colleagues, including issues with how the majority party set up the chamber’s rules, McCarthy’s legislative practices, and the decision to launch an impeachment inquiry of President Joe Biden.
Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) put it more simply when speaking to reporters Tuesday: “We’re not voting in any way that would help Speaker McCarthy … Nobody trusts Kevin McCarthy, and why should they?”
Ahead of the vote, some Democrats suggested they’d be willing to support McCarthy in exchange for concessions. But the California lawmaker quickly ruled out that possibility. Such concessions could have included passing funding for Ukraine — which had become a sticking point in the spending fight amid waning public support for continuing to aid the country’s war efforts against Russia — or ending the Biden impeachment inquiry.
Offering even small concessions would have further weakened McCarthy’s standing among the GOP, however, potentially adding to the list of Republican lawmakers planning to vote for his ouster. But his reluctance to deal with Democrats ultimately led to his demise.
“Unless a Republican is willing to work on a consistent basis with Democrats, then the far-right wing, who are more interested in burning the place down than getting something done, will retain control,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “It’s a more viable path than bending the knee to people who have no interest whatsoever in governing.”
Regular business in the House will be on hold until someone wins the 218 votes necessary to become the next speaker. McCarthy has already said that he will not run again. House Majority Leader Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), Judiciary Committee chair Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), and Republican Study Committee head Rep. Kevin Hern (R-OK) have been reportedly trying to drum up support, but others could also emerge as contenders.
Who could be the next speaker?
Scalise, the Republican majority leader, was the heir apparent to the speakership, but a cancer diagnosis could derail those plans. He did announce in September that he has pursued aggressive treatment for his multiple myeloma, which has significantly improved his long-term prognosis. Gaetz, Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-TX), and House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-MN), who was originally thought to have ambitions for the speakership himself, have said that they would support Scalise. Scalise was among multiple people who were injured when a gunman fired at lawmakers on a baseball field in 2017.
However, McCarthy allies are reportedly trying to torpedo Scalise’s candidacy, and he’s not seen as a strong fundraiser — a major weakness ahead of an election year. That would advantage Jordan, who had previously challenged McCarthy for the speakership but has since become one of his biggest supporters among the party’s right flank. He’s already secured endorsements from Reps. Jim Banks (R-IN) and Thomas Massie (R-KY), and is seen as a strong fundraiser.
But both Scalise and Jordan may still struggle to capture moderate support, potentially leaving an opening for other candidates. McHenry has apparently ruled out running for the speakership, despite occupying the position temporarily. Hern had previously put his name in the hat during the January speaker fight, but received only two votes and voted himself for McCarthy.
Other potential contenders could be Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), the conference chair, and Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), the Rules Committee chairman. Stefanik rose to prominence as a MAGA firebrand during the Trump presidency. She’s a strong fundraiser, and has been focused on expanding — and diversifying — the GOP caucus over the past few years, including by targeting traditionally blue areas. Cole, a bipartisan operator who has been an ally of the past three Republican speakers, warned Tuesday that removing McCarthy would result in chaos and criticized his party’s right wing for seeking his demise. But he shocked many when he voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election in Trump’s favor. That decision wouldn’t necessarily lose him Republican votes, but would mean he’d be unable to rely on Democratic help in taking the speaker’s gavel.
Some Republicans have even floated former President Donald Trump for the speakership. There has never been a House speaker who wasn’t already a sitting member, but outsiders are technically allowed to run. Trump has remained quiet on McCarthy’s ouster, but it’s unclear whether he would seek the speakership given that he’s already declined to run in the past. He also appears to be barred by House Republicans’ own rules, given that he’s been charged with felonies that carry potential prison sentences of two or more years.
Still, it’s hard to see right now how any of these candidates might win the votes necessary to become speaker. Scalise is an early favorite, but the divisions within the GOP conference — and the fact that Democrats intend to vote for Minority Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) — could make the process of choosing the next speaker drag on for days.
What happens next?
In January, it took 15 rounds of voting before McCarthy finally won the speakership. Deliberations continued for more than four days, longer than any speaker contest in 164 years. Hardline conservatives continued to oppose him until he offered them a long list of concessions, including a pledge to pair raising the nation’s debt ceiling with spending cuts and critically, allowing any member to bring the motion to vacate the speaker’s chair, offers that ultimately led to his demise.
Given that divisions between those conservatives and moderates in the GOP conference are deeper than ever — with some McCarthy allies even crying on the House floor Tuesday night — this vote could play out similarly.
Whoever wins the speakership will immediately be plagued by the same Republican disarray, with just weeks left to hash out a deal with Democrats to fund the government and avoid a shutdown.
“It’s virtually an impossible position as long as the far-right crazies continue to make life miserable for whoever is in that chair,” he said. “I can’t imagine wanting that job under the current circumstances.”
Ayres predicts that, given the way that the spending fight has gone so far, debates over funding the government will likely “go up to the very last minute again before somebody pulls a rabbit out of a hat.”
This is a developing story and will be updated as new information becomes available.