By Richard Cowan, David Morgan and Moira Warburton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives was leaderless on Wednesday, after hardline Republicans narrowly won a vote to oust Speaker Kevin McCarthy, an historic move that triggered what will be a lengthy and likely messy battle to find a replacement.
It was the first time that the House has removed a speaker – a position that is second in line to the president after the vice president.
Republicans lawmakers signaled they would need a week to regroup, planning to meet on Tuesday to discuss possible candidates to replace McCarthy – who said he would not run again – with votes on Oct. 11 at the earliest.
The leadership fight is eating into the time lawmakers have to avert a looming partial government shutdown, which would begin on Nov. 18 if Congress fails to pass legislation proving more funding.
“We’re in uncharted waters,” Republican Representative Byron Donalds told reporters after supporting McCarthy in a vote the speaker lost 216-210.
It was not clear who might seek to succeed McCarthy in a job that has proven challenging for Republicans in recent years. The last two Republican speakers, Paul Ryan and John Boehner, retired from Congress after clashes with their right wing.
McCarthy, who led a narrow 221-212 majority, made the job even more difficult for himself. During 15 grueling rounds of voting on his bid for the speakership in January, he agreed to changes to House rules that allowed any one member of Congress to call for the speaker’s ouster, setting the stage for Representative Matt Gaetz to do just that.
“I don’t envy anyone this job,” Republican Representative Mike Garcia said. He described the rule change as “like handing 220 matches out to people in your party and dousing yourself in fuel and hoping none of them are crazy.”
McCarthy said only that his advice to the next speaker was: “Change the rules.”
Republican Representative Dusty Johnson, asked about the prospect of picking a new speaker, told reporters: “Frankly, one has to wonder whether or not the House is governable at all.”
‘I’VE NEVER SEEN THIS’
Even though many lawmakers saw this day coming, given McCarthy’s tenuous hold on the speakership, they nonetheless were stunned that Republicans actually dumped their own leader.
“I’ve been here for a while, and I’ve seen a lot, but I’ve never seen this,” Democratic Representative Jim McGovern told Reuters.
House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries urged “traditional Republicans” in the House to “walk away from MAGA extremism and join us in partnership for the good of the country,” a reference to former President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.
The names being mentioned as replacements for McCarthy include House Majority Leader Steve Scalise and Republican Whip Tom Emmer. Representative Patrick McHenry, who was named speaker pro tempore after McCarthy’s removal, could also become a candidate.
None have said if they are interested, and other names could emerge in the week ahead.
Scalise, the No. 2 House Republican, is viewed by many in the party rank-and-file as a more rock-solid conservative than some House Republicans viewed McCarthy. Scalise recently was undergoing cancer treatment but has been working in the Capitol since then.
The entire House – Republicans and Democrats – vote for the chamber’s speaker who normally holds the position for two years or until the end of the current Congress in early January 2025. Jeffries is expected to run against any Republican candidate nominated by the party conference, as he did in January.
The Republican Party chaos comes as Congress already was struggling over how to fund the government in the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1. Just four days ago, lawmakers narrowly averted a partial government shutdown that would have stopped pay for more than 4 million federal workers and shuttered a wide range of federal programs.
McCarthy’s move Saturday to join forces with opposition Democrats to enact a stopgap spending bill saved the country from a wrenching shutdown.
But it sparked the revolt led by Gaetz among hard-right Republicans who were angered by the failure to achieve deep spending cuts in that temporary measure.
The crisis also detracts from Republican hopes to fix the public’s focus on an impeachment inquiry into Democratic President Joe Biden and immigration troubles at the southwest U.S. border with Mexico.
McCarthy and his fellow Republicans had hoped to make those twin issues the centerpiece of the 2024 congressional and presidential campaigns along with inflation.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan, David Morgan and Moira Warburton; Editing by Scott Malone and Cynthia Osterman)