Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks to reporters hours after he was ousted as Speaker of the House, on Oct. 3, at the Capitol in Washington.J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press

A small group of deeply conservative congressional representatives orchestrated the unprecedented ouster of a Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, a move that creates fresh legislative uncertainty as another possible U.S. government shutdown looms a month and a half away.

Eight Republicans turned against Kevin McCarthy, led by Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, a devoted supporter of former president Donald Trump. Voting alongside Democrats, that small faction was enough to affect the removal of Mr. McCarthy, whose position placed him third in line to the U.S. presidency. Republican Patrick McHenry, a close ally of Mr. McCarthy, will act as a temporary Speaker in his stead.

Mr. McCarthy gained the Speaker’s chair less than nine months ago after a punishing 15 rounds of voting in which he prevailed only after making a series of pledges to the party’s far right.

But with Republicans in possession of only a slim nine-seat majority in the House, that faction has wielded considerable influence over the party’s priorities, which it exercised Tuesday to punish Mr. McCarthy, citing what it called his failure to live up to those promises.

The removal of Mr. McCarthy was an act of political self-decapitation that demonstrated the enormity of divisions inside the Republican Party. Indeed, Mr. Gaetz was barred from speaking at Republican podiums on the House floor, leaving him to make his arguments surrounded by Democrats.

He directed his scorn at his party colleagues, whom he accused of failing to arrest the accumulation of U.S. debt or reform the way spending bills are legislated, saying Republican congressional efforts have instead amounted to “failure theatre” under Mr. McCarthy. Mr. Gaetz has used his campaign against Mr. McCarthy as a personal fundraising tool, an act he defended as fighting “those who would grovel and bend knee for the lobbyists and special interests who own our leadership.”

The Democrats watched in silence as Mr. Gaetz was booed by his own party.

“We have descended to a place where clicks, TV hits and the never-ending quest for the most mediocre taste of celebrity drives decisions and encourages juvenile behaviour,” North Dakota Republican Kelly Armstrong said.

Democrats voted as a bloc against Mr. McCarthy in what Democratic House Leader Hakeem Jeffries called a stand against Republican political extremism. Democrats want Republicans to end their impeachment inquiry against President Joe Biden. Mr. McCarthy said he had refused to entertain Democrat demands.

“It is now the responsibility of the GOP members to end the House Republican Civil War,” Mr. Jeffries said in a statement issued before the vote.

But grievances inside the party have grown deeply personal. Before entering the Capitol building Tuesday, Tennessee Republican Tim Burchett said he intended to pray about how to vote. But after a phone call in which he said Mr. McCarthy belittled his faith, Mr. Burchett joined those who deposed the Speaker.

“When someone mocks me like that and mocks my religion – and honestly, the Bible is pretty clear about God being mocked – so that’s what sealed it right there for me,” Mr. Burchett told CNN.

At a Republican House conference meeting Tuesday evening, Mr. McCarthy said he would not make another attempt to be Speaker, U.S. media reported. A vote for a new Speaker is not expected until next week.

Mr. Gaetz threw his support behind two senior party leaders: Tom Emmer, the Republican House Whip, and Steve Scalise, the House Majority Leader who was diagnosed this summer with cancer.

Both men spoke on Tuesday in support of Mr. McCarthy, a career Republican politician from California who had proven himself a canny and persistent leader – notably in his ability to overcome the initial opposition to his bid for the Speaker’s chair.

But Mr. McCarthy could not navigate the competing demands of the far right and moderates in his party, and the progressive agenda of Democrats across the aisle.

“He wasn’t able to deliver for the handful of nihilist members of his own caucus but he also wasn’t prepared to give Democrats any reason to support him,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political newsletter, at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

The question for the U.S. Congress now is whether anyone else can successfully navigate those demands. Whoever inherits the Speaker’s position will also inherit the fractures and antipathies that took down Mr. McCarthy.

“There is part of the House Republican conference that basically just hates their own leadership,” said Mr. Kondik. “And when you’ve only got a tiny majority, as the Republicans have right now, it doesn’t take all that much for something like this to happen.”

Republican strategist Jai Chabria sees havoc in Congress as a reflection of rising anti-institutional sentiment among voters. “There’s a growing angst inside the country, and it’s not just Republicans. It’s the base of both parties,” he said.

It is nonetheless Republicans who have hamstrung their own legislative ability, said Morris Fiorina, a Stanford University political scientist, who warned the party may pay a price in next year’s elections.

“Ordinary people will now begin to realize that Republicans simply can’t govern,” he said.

Republicans, he said, have become “the gang who couldn’t shoot straight. They’re so internally conflicted. If I was a betting man, the Democrats take the House next time.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe