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How the vote to boot Speaker McCarthy played out inside the chamber

Nervous laughter, calls of ‘shame’ and the question on everyone’s minds — now what?

Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz talks with reporters Tuesday morning in the Capitol.
Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz talks with reporters Tuesday morning in the Capitol. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

“​​The office of speaker of the House … is hereby declared vacant,” Rep. Steve Womack said, banging the gavel and making history as Kevin McCarthy became the first speaker of the House ousted by a floor vote. 

“Now what?” a voice from the House floor cried out, as others gasped and murmured. Just nine months after McCarthy won the speakership in 15 rounds of voting, he has lost the perch for which he so desperately fought. 

Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., assumed the role of acting speaker pro tempore and immediately called a recess, as Republicans filed one-by-one to shake McCarthy’s hand and offer their condolences. On the other side of the House floor, Democrats quickly surrounded Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and his leadership team. 

The calm before the storm

In the hours before the motion, the House went about its work like any other Tuesday in the fall. McCarthy gaveled in the session, then turned to House Chaplain Margaret Kibben, who led those gathered there in prayer. “May we forswear our grudges and commit instead to exercise forbearance,” she intoned.

There were several one-minute speeches, ranging from Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., expressing his support for America’s hydroelectric dams to Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., honoring an all-female firefighter crew who responded to a three-alarm blaze. Then, as if everything were fine, Chief Deputy Whip Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa., opened debate on a rule providing for floor consideration of two of the chamber’s overdue spending bills: Energy and Water and the Legislative Branch.

As she argued against the procedural step on behalf of Democrats, Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon alluded to the larger drama to come. “Over the past month, House Republicans have plunged this chamber into chaos,” the Pennsylvania Democrat said, wondering whether to blame the “extremists who refuse to honor the bipartisan budget deal” or “House leadership, who seem unable to prevent this destructive behavior or perhaps to lead this chamber at all.”

Through it all, Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz — the man who set this entire ordeal into motion, earning the enmity of some of his GOP colleagues along the way — sat alone, glued to his phone, in his usual seat toward the center back of the chamber. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, walking by him to grab some materials from an aide outside the chamber, stopped to shake his hand. After turning to leave, the Texas Democrat spun around again, as if she had something else to say but then thought better of it.

As tourists filtered in and out of the visitor’s gallery, some said they were unaware of the drama about to unfold below them.

When they first planned their family trip to the Capitol months ago, Menachem and Dina Kranz didn’t know they’d be in Washington on such a momentous day. The couple and their two school-age children caught a glimpse of McCarthy from their perch in the House visitors’ gallery.

“He looked very lonely,” said Menachem Kranz. 

When the chamber reconvened after a short recess, it was gaveled in this time by Womack, an Arkansas Republican. Smiles and laughter abounded on the Democratic side, while the Republican conference filtered in mostly grim-faced, although a few cracked jokes — gallows humor, perhaps — that elicited grins.

Waiting for the start of the end, McCarthy leaned against the lectern chatting with colleagues as Gaetz, a few feet in front of him, stared up at the gallery periodically and tapped his foot.

The House continued on like normal even when Gaetz rose to make the motion to declare the speakership vacant, which was immediately met with a motion to table from Rep. Tom Cole, the Rules Committee chairman from Oklahoma. The floor continued to buzz with members’ conversations, at least until the vote was called. “The ayes are 208, the nays are 218,” Womack intoned, gravely. “The motion is not adopted.” 

A hush fell over the room as the gravity of the situation made itself felt. While speakers have faced intraparty rebellions before — McCarthy himself was John Boehner’s No. 2 when he was defenestrated in 2015 — they all resigned before facing the actual vote. The only other time there was a vote on a motion to vacate was in 1910, when it was invented by Speaker Joe Cannon as a show of strength; he defeated the motion, 155-192. 

The House proceeded to a one-hour debate, with Gaetz controlling 30 minutes to urge his colleagues to boot the speaker and Cole controlling 30 minutes to urge the opposite. Democrats, meanwhile, simply looked on. 

Starting with Rep. Bob Good of Virginia, the anti-McCarthyites argued repeatedly that the speaker had failed to keep his promises. But after Good and Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona rose to speak, Gaetz was left alone to make his case against a parade of McCarthy’s GOP defenders. 

“There’s nothing selfish about wanting a speaker of the House who tells the truth,” Gaetz said.

‘No … for now’

As Republicans from all over the conference’s ideological spectrum rose to defend McCarthy, Gaetz sparred with them all. When the chair of the Republican conference, Elise Stefanik of New York, argued that the GOP majority had exceeded expectations, Gaetz got big laughs — all from Democrats — when he quipped that if the House “has exceeded all expectations, then we definitely need higher expectations.” 

Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana, another McCarthy ally, pulled out his phone to show that Gaetz had sent a fundraising email out during the debate, eliciting calls of “shame” from other Republicans. 

Through it all, the Democrats sat on the sidelines until it was time to vote — this time through a slow, dramatic alphabetical call of the roll. There was nervous laughter as Republican Dan Bishop of North Carolina voted “nay,” which the clerk initially heard as “yea,” and more still when Republican Lauren Boebert of Colorado voted “No … for now.” 

As his fate was announced vote by vote, McCarthy sat at ease, seemingly unbothered as his speakership unraveled around him. He chuckled when backers like Ryan Zinke of Montana underlined their opposition to the motion to vacate, saying, “No, nay, never,” and chatted periodically with an aide. Members chatted nervously with one another as staffers tried to keep a running tally.

In the end, McCarthy lost his speakership by a 216-210 vote. 

What happens next isn’t entirely clear. With McHenry acting as speaker pro tempore, the chamber can engage in regular business, but certain matters, like electing a speaker, will remain privileged, meaning anyone making such a motion could quickly trigger such a vote. At least, that’s what some experts believe — this has never happened before, so it’s hard to say either way. 

In the lead-up to the vote, McCarthy’s team whipped support by selling Republicans on his “record of success,” as his close ally McHenry put it. “The three major plays of the year — opening week [the speakership vote and rules package], the debt ceiling and the continuing resolution — it is win, win, win.”

But it’s unclear how long these accomplishments will stand now that McCarthy has been deposed. He may go down in history as Speaker Ozymandias, declaring, “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! // Nothing beside remains.”

Daniela Altimari contributed to this report.

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