By Lisa Mascaro and Farnoush Amiri
Speaker Kevin McCarthy was voted out of the job Tuesday in an extraordinary showdown, a first in U.S. history that was forced by a contingent of hard-right conservatives and threw the House and its Republican leadership into chaos.
McCarthy’s chief rival, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, forced the vote on the “motion to vacate,” drawing together more than a handful of conservative Republican critics of the speaker and many Democrats who say he is unworthy of leadership.
Next steps are uncertain, but there is no obvious successor to lead the House Republican majority.
Stillness fell as the presiding officer gaveled the vote closed, 216-210, saying the office of the speaker "is hereby declared vacant.”
Moments later, a top McCarthy ally, Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., took the gavel and, according to House rules, was named speaker pro tempore, to serve in the office until a new speaker is chosen.
The House then briskly recessed so lawmakers could meet and discuss the path forward.
It was a stunning moment for the battle-tested McCarthy, a punishment fueled by growing grievances but sparked by his weekend decision to work with Democrats to keep the federal government open rather than risk a shutdown.
An earlier vote was 218-208 against tabling the motion, with 11 Republicans allowing it to advance.
The House then opened a floor debate, unseen in modern times, ahead of the next round of voting.
McCarthy, of California, insisted he would not cut a deal with Democrats to remain in power — not that he could have relied on their help even if he had asked.
Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries said in a letter to colleagues that he wants to work with Republicans, but he was unwilling to provide the votes needed to save McCarthy.
“It is now the responsibility of the GOP members to end the House Republican Civil War,” Jeffries said, announcing the Democratic leadership would vote for the motion to oust the speaker.
As the House fell silent, Gaetz, a top ally of Donald Trump, rose to offer his motion. Gaetz is a leader of the hard-right Republicans who fought in January against McCarthy in his prolonged battle to gain the gavel.
“It's a sad day,” Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma said as debate got underway, urging his colleagues not to plunge the House Republican majority "into chaos."
But Gaetz shot back during the debate, "Chaos is Speaker McCarthy."
McCarthy's fate was deeply uncertain as the fiery debate unfolded, with much of the complaints against the speaker revolving around his truthfulness and his ability to keep the promises he had made since January to win the gavel.
But a long line of McCarthy supporters, including Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a founding leader of the conservative Freedom Caucus, stood up for him: “I think he has kept his word.” And some did so passionately. Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., waved his cellphone, saying it was “disgusting” that hard-right colleagues were fundraising off the move in text messages seeking donations.
At the Capitol, both Republicans and Democrats met privately ahead of the historic afternoon vote.
Behind closed doors, McCarthy told fellow Republicans: Let’s get on with it.
“If I counted how many times someone wanted to knock me out, I would have been gone a long time ago,” McCarthy said at the Capitol after the morning meeting.
McCarthy insisted he had not reached across the aisle to the Democratic leader Jeffries for help with votes to stay in the job, nor had they demanded anything in return.
During the hour-long meeting in the Capitol basement, McCarthy invoked Republican Speaker Joseph Cannon, who more than 100 years ago confronted his critics head-on by calling their bluff and setting the vote himself on his ouster. Cannon survived that takedown attempt, which was the first time the House had actually voted to consider removing its speaker. A more recent threat, in 2015, didn't make it to a vote.
McCarthy received three standing ovations during the private meeting — one when he came to the microphone to speak, again during his remarks and finally when he was done, according to a Republican at the meeting who was granted anonymity to discuss it.
At one point, there was a show of hands in support of McCarthy and it was “overwhelming,” said Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., a member of the House Freedom Caucus.
Gaetz was in attendance, but he did not address the room.
Across the way in the Capitol, Democrats lined up for a long discussion and unified around one common point: McCarthy cannot be trusted, several lawmakers in the room said.
“I think it’s safe to say there’s not a lot of goodwill in that room for Kevin McCarthy,” said Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass.
“At the end of the day, the country needs a speaker that can be relied upon,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. "We don’t trust him. Their members don’t trust him. And you need a certain degree of trust to be the speaker.”
Removing the speaker launches the House Republicans into chaos, as they try to find a new leader. It took McCarthy himself 15 rounds in January over multiple days of voting before he secured the support from his colleagues to gain the gavel. There is no obvious GOP successor.
Trump, the former president who is the Republican front-runner in the 2024 race to challenge Biden, weighed in to complain about the chaos. “Why is it that Republicans are always fighting among themselves," he asked on social media.
One key McCarthy ally, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., took to social media urging support for “our speaker” and an end to the chaos that has roiled the Republican majority.
Republicans were upset that McCarthy relied on Democratic votes Saturday to approve the temporary measure to keep the government running until Nov. 17. Some would have preferred a government shutdown as they fight for deeper spending cuts.
But Democrats were also upset with McCarthy for walking away from the debt deal that he made with Biden earlier this year that already set federal spending levels, as he emboldened his right flank to push for steep spending reductions.
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking, Stephen Groves and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.
Updated October 3, 2023 at 5:17 p.m. ET with latest updates.