Washington and Congress have their own, often impenetrable, languages. So it may be somewhat confusing to assess what it means that the office of the speaker of the House of Representatives is vacant.
Here are key things to know about how Rep. Kevin McCarthy was ousted as House speaker:
What happened to McCarthy?
McCarthy had been House speaker since January, when he won the gavel after 15 rounds of balloting. He was ousted on October 3 after a small minority of his narrow majority – just eight Republicans – voted to remove him.
Why such a short tenure?
As part of a series of deals with hardliners to win the speaker’s gavel in the first place, McCarthy agreed that just one member would be required to call for a vote to “vacate” him from office at any time. Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz became that member on October 3.
What was the eight Republicans’ beef with McCarthy?
Most of the eight came from the ultra conservative Freedom Caucus. They were angry that McCarthy cut a deal with Democrats to avert a partial government shutdown and fund the government temporarily for 45 days. They were also frustrated at the terms of a deal he cut with President Joe Biden to raise the nation’s debt limit earlier this year. This wing of the GOP is absolutist in its view of federal spending and some have even expressed willingness to entertain a default or shutdown to get what they want.
Many House Republicans who share some of these ideological views, however, continued to support McCarthy. Some of the people who voted to oust him, led by Gaetz, also had more personal conflicts with McCarthy, accusing him of not keeping his word.
Why didn’t any Democrats help McCarthy?
Some did consider rescuing the California Republican. But the party also has a collective political interest in watching Republicans squirm. And McCarthy, while a genial guy, was also extremely partisan. While he cut deals to keep the government open and raise the debt ceiling, he also recently initiated an official impeachment inquiry against Biden. And he refused to put some bills that had widespread bipartisan support – such as a defense authorization bill – on the House floor without partisan additions.
So many Democrats felt like they didn’t owe him anything, even if a future GOP speaker could be more conservative than McCarthy.
It’s easy to marvel at how Republicans allowed this to happen and to criticize Democrats for choosing the more partisan route, but both things were a long time coming.
Has this ever happened before?
It’s unprecedented for a speaker to be kicked out of their position in the middle of a congressional session. The type of House chaos in which parties could not agree on a speaker was more common before the Civil War.
Who chooses the speaker?
A majority of members of Congress – 218 if everyone is present and voting – selects the speaker. But lawmakers traditionally separate by party when they choose their speaker. If all Democrats vote for the Democratic leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, that means Republicans must find 218 votes from their conference for whomever they put up.
Why is this so hard for Republicans?
Their majority, which they won in last year’s midterms, is extremely small. Only four Republicans can break with the pack in order for a GOP speaker to be seated. When McCarthy was booted from the speaker’s office, he lost just eight Republicans of his 221-member conference.