McCarthy voted out as US speaker
Republican Kevin McCarthy rode the tiger of far-right US politics led by Donald Trump to achieve his dream of becoming House speaker early this year. Then on Tuesday, the tiger turned and ate him.
The 55th speaker of the House of Representatives was booted out in a shock vote brought by rebels in his own party who have seethed in the nine months since McCarthy narrowly quelled their attempts to block him and managed to claim the most powerful job in Congress.
No other speaker — a position second in line from the presidency in the federal hierarchy — has been ousted in US history.
It was an undignified end — for now, at least — to an unstable, unauthoritative tenure by a lawmaker who made his mark as a so-called conservative “Young Gun,” only to get battered by his party’s shifting political currents.
Like many in Congress, he had berated Trump after the January 6, 2021 US Capitol riot. But the ambitious lawmaker sensed the winds changing and quickly reversed himself, making a public trip down to Florida to make peace with Trump — thereby securing crucial support for his speakership ambitions.
Once McCarthy, 58, got what he wanted, though, he faced an uncomfortable reality: his grip on power would from then on be at the whim of his party’s burn-down-the-house hardliners.
In May he strode into a tense standoff with Democratic President Joe Biden over authorizing an extension of the national debt limit.
He struck an 11th-hour deal to avert a catastrophic US debt default, and while he hailed it as a victory for conservatives — and good governance — he faced a backlash from hardliners who said he had made too many concessions on spending cuts.
His limited engagement with Democrats was again the subject of the far-right’s ire last week when he used votes from the rival party to stave off a government shutdown.
The move defied hardliners — and Trump — who advocated harsh tactics in pursuit of forcing massive spending cuts and bringing down the country’s $31-trillion-plus debt burden.
Haunted from the Start
McCarthy has described himself as an “optimist,” but there has been no placating the uncompromising right-wing of the Republican Party that flourished under Trump and never went away.
Simply to secure the speakership in January took him a record 15 rounds of voting to win and he finally got over the line only after making concessions to a bloc of around 20 far-right Republicans.
Analysts at the time immediately predicted this would come back to haunt McCarthy, by putting the hardliners in the driving seat.
One of those concessions was a rule change that made it possible for just one disgruntled member to call a vote for a new speaker of the House, effectively dangling a sword over McCarthy.
Backbencher Matt Gaetz, a Trump loyalist and emerging face of the far-right, seized on that change and filed the so-called motion to vacate the chair, leading to McCarthy’s ouster on Tuesday.
– Networker –
The speaker wields huge influence in Washington by presiding over House business and is second in line to the presidency, after the vice president.
Nothing prevents McCarthy from running for speaker again. But the question is: can his party overcome its internal feuds and hand him back the gavel, or will they turn to new blood?
McCarthy — who represents the conservative enclave of Bakersfield in liberal California — has been in politics for most of his adult life, as a state legislator and US lawmaker in Washington.
The son of a firefighter and grandson of a cattle rancher, McCarthy grew up in a working-class household.
He married his high school sweetheart and the couple still live in the first house they bought, where they raised two children.
McCarthy, first elected to Congress in 2006, has no major legislative achievements to his name and has never chaired a House committee, unlike each of the last three speakers.
However, the silver-haired, impeccably dressed lawmaker is a consummate networker, admired for his prolific fundraising and his people management.