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The Fall of the Speaker of The House: Causes, Consequences, the Road Ahead

Nasma Ibrahim, Staff Writer

Representative Kevin McCarthy delivers speech. Photo//USDA Forest Service

On Tuesday, Oct. 3, history was made in the House of Representatives when a vote of 216-210 resulted in the removal of California Republican Kevin McCarthy from his position as speaker. Eight Republicans, along with all 213 Democrats, joined forces to oust him.

In January, during McCarthy’s bid for speaker, he made several concessions to secure the support of Republicans who opposed him, one of which was a rule allowing a single member to bring a motion to vacate, which would trigger a vote on removing the speaker. Now, only a simple majority of the House was needed to oust McCarthy. With the Republicans holding a very slim majority, with a count of 222-213, just five Republicans joining the Democrats could remove McCarthy from his position.

Matt Gaetz, a pro-Trump Florida representative, had been threatening to remove McCarthy for months if he sought support from Democratic votes to pass legislation. After McCarthy passed a stopgap measure with Democratic support, Gaetz followed through on his threat, initiating the motion to vacate the speaker of the house.

McCarthy’s removal marks the first time a US Speaker is vacated from the position, creating uncharted territory for the already divided house. The motion to vacate was first used in 1910 when Republican Speaker Joseph Cannon proposed it against himself to compel members of his own party to either support or reject him, although this motion failed. In 1997, Speaker Newt Gingrich faced a similar threat, but managed to avoid an actual resolution. More recently, in 2015, representative Mark Meadows filed a motion to vacate against Republican Speaker John Boehner, but it did not come to a vote.

In the event of a vacancy, a member of the house from a list submitted by McCarthy in January becomes speaker pro tempore until a new speaker is elected. Currently, Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina holds this role. The immediate priority is to vote on a new speaker so that the House can resume normal operations. However, it is uncertain which Republican candidate can get enough support to be voted in as the new speaker.

The Republican’s slim majority requires all but six Republicans to support a candidate for them to move on. McCarthy was voted speaker after 15 rounds of voting and negotiations with the most conservative members to become speaker. If Republicans cannot reach a consensus, there is a possibility that Democrats could form a coalition with some Republicans. Democrats are unified in their support for Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries.

While McHenry serves as temporary speaker, his role is not well defined. Granting him additional powers, such as bringing legislation to the floor, would require a vote – the outcome of this vote uncertain given the partisan divide. This is leading to a halt in legislative work, affecting critical legislative work, including funding the government, preventing a mid-November government shutdown and providing aid to Israel.

How long this deadlock will last remains uncertain. On Oct. 24, Representative Tom Emmer was nominated for Speaker of the House, but he withdrew from the race hours later after a group of right-wing Republicans indicated they would not vote for him.

The persistent deadlock and disagreement among the Republican party have left Congress without clear leadership for three weeks, with all three nominees for the speaker position ultimately dropping out. Some experts suggest that this situation is only a symptom of a larger problem in the Republican party. As of now, McHenry will continue to serve as Speaker pro tempore until a new speaker is elected.

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