Kevin McCarthy’s stint as speaker of America’s House of Representatives ended the way it had begun: in utterly humiliating fashion. Members of the lower chamber of Congress disposed of their leader for the first time in American history on October 3rd. Despite earning support from 210 of the 221 House Republicans, eight hardliners teamed up with 208 Democrats to fire Mr McCarthy. Shortly thereafter the former speaker announced he would not try to regain the title. The coming weeks are likely to be chaotic, and the results of this chapter of congressional dysfunction will reverberate far beyond Capitol Hill.
An embarrassing ejection looked to be on the cards as soon as Mr McCarthy won the speaker’s gavel in January. As part of an agreement with recalcitrant Republicans after 15 rounds of voting, Mr McCarthy agreed to allow one congressman, at any time, for any reason, to call a vote for his removal. Matt Gaetz, an elaborately coiffed representative from Florida, had threatened the so-called motion to vacate for some time. The former speaker’s recent dealmaking with Democrats to avoid a government shutdown pushed him over the edge.
For all his faults, Mr McCarthy overcame thin margins during his time in office. In June he managed to raise the debt ceiling, to avoid unnecessarily forcing a default. Then, on September 30th, he pushed through a last-minute bipartisan deal to delay a costly government shutdown. The next speaker may find the job more difficult still, even without the same baggage that some in the unruly Republican Party felt that Mr McCarthy carried.
The immediate task will be funding the government. The deal to avert a shutdown keeps the government going only until November 17th. Without quick action, Mr McCarthy’s replacement will be overseeing a shutdown after a few weeks on the job. The gaping divide between moderate Republicans and hardliners, particularly in the House Freedom Caucus, will not go away simply because a fresh face is running the conference.
Aid for Ukraine, which was not included in the government-funding deal in order to placate hardliners, is the greatest concern for those beyond America’s borders. At the press conference announcing his departure, Mr McCarthy compared Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler and said the current world reminded him of the 1930s. He reiterated his support for Ukraine and rightly criticised President Joe Biden for his past hesitance on arming the country.
But some of the Republican conference has begun to oppose further funding. Mr McCarthy suggested a quid pro quo, in which aid for the government in Kyiv would be approved if Democrats help pass policies to shore up America’s porous border. Supporters of Ukraine in Congress, who constitute a clear majority in both chambers, are pushing for a vote that would guarantee funding for the war-torn country through the 2024 American presidential election. Threading this legislative needle could be even more difficult than avoiding a shutdown.
To whom that task will fall is not obvious. Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican hand-picked by Mr McCarthy, will serve as acting speaker and will oversee the election of Mr McCarthy’s replacement. Republicans are planning for a candidate forum on October 10th and a vote the following day, according to members of Congress at the Tuesday evening meeting with Mr McCarthy. But the real question is who in the Republican conference has the mental fitness to do the job—and is still mad enough to seek it.
No one expects a consensus figure to emerge quickly as, for example, Paul Ryan did when he replaced John Boehner as speaker in 2015. Steve Scalise, the second-ranked House Republican, has reportedly begun weighing support. Jim Jordan, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has credibility as a former Freedom Caucus chairman who managed to work productively with McCarthy allies. And Kevin Hern leads the Republican Study Committee, which counts a majority of the House Republican Party as members.
The chaos and intrigue will be as entertaining as any episode of “The West Wing”, a Washington-focused television drama. That will provide little comfort for Americans who want their government to stay open—or for Ukrainians who rely on American power and largesse to sustain their fight for survival. ■