Democrats in disarray” has been an oft-repeated joke in Washington in recent years, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the tensions that repeatedly flared up between the progressives and the centrists of Joe Biden’s party. But on Tuesday, House Democrats presented a united front as their Republican counterparts turned against each other and ultimately ousted one of their own in a historic defeat.
The entire House Democratic caucus voted unanimously to remove the Republican Kevin McCarthy as speaker on Tuesday, joining eight mostly hard-right lawmakers in supporting a motion to vacate the chair. Refusing to intervene in a mess of Republicans’ own making, Democrats looked on as McCarthy was unseated, making him the first House speaker in US history to be removed from office.
Under the oversight of their new leader, Hakeem Jeffries of New York, House Democrats have marched in lockstep to challenge Republicans’ policy agenda, offering a stark contrast to the fractious conference that McCarthy tried and failed to unify. As they look to take back the House next year, Democrats hope to use the instability displayed this week to make a broader argument about the extremism that they say has come to define the modern Republican party.
Heading into the Tuesday vote, speculation abounded over whether McCarthy might offer Democrats some kind of deal to help save his speakership. But McCarthy chose not to, telling CNBC on Tuesday: “They haven’t asked for anything, and I’m not going to provide anything.”
Instead, McCarthy tried to appeal to members’ faith in the integrity of the House to keep his gavel, arguing that a removal of a speaker would represent an irreversible black mark on the institution.
But that argument struck many Democrats as hypocritical coming from McCarthy, particularly given the speaker’s stunning flip-flop regarding the deadly insurrection at the Capitol on 6 January 2021. In the days after the attack, McCarthy said Donald Trump “bears responsibility” for the violence carried out by a group of the former president’s supporters. But just two weeks later, McCarthy flew to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida to make amends, and he later denounced the work of the House select committee investigating the insurrection.
McCarthy “went to Mar-a-Lago to kiss the ring and voted not to impeach Donald Trump for inciting a violent insurrection against the 2020 presidential election and our government”, Jamie Raskin, a Democratic member of the select committee, said Tuesday. “This is a somber day for America as the chickens come home to roost for Kevin McCarthy.”
The final self-inflicted nail in McCarthy’s coffin came on Sunday, the day after the House passed a continuing resolution to extend government funding through 17 November and avert a federal shutdown. House Democrats overwhelmingly supported the stopgap funding bill, with just one member voting against it, but 90 House Republicans opposed the legislation.
And yet, when McCarthy appeared on CBS News’ Face the Nation on Sunday, he attempted to blame Democrats for the last-minute scramble.
“I wasn’t sure it was going to pass. You want to know why? Because the Democrats tried to do everything they can not to let it pass,” McCarthy said. “They did not want the bill. They were willing to let government shut down, for our military not to be paid.”
House Democratic leaders played a clip of McCarthy’s interview during their Tuesday morning caucus meeting, just hours before the chamber’s vote on removing the speaker. McCarthy’s comments outraged Democrats, fortifying the caucus’s resolve to support the motion to vacate.
“It goes in political 101 textbooks going forward as maybe one of the most … stupid things somebody could do on the eve of your survival vote,” Gerry Connolly, a Democratic Virginia congressman, told NBC News.
In the end, every present House Democrat voted to oust McCarthy, ensuring the end of his speakership. Democrats commended Jeffries on keeping his members unified on Tuesday, mirroring the caucus’s unanimous support for Jeffries through 15 rounds of voting during the speakership election in January.
“Yesterday was a pure demonstration of the type of leadership and continuity that [Jeffries] brings to the table and how inclusive he is,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist. “He has, I think, been extra intentional about keeping all four corners of the House Democratic caucus square together and living out what diversity and inclusion means when it comes to House Democrats.”
Jeffries has now called on more centrist members of the House Republican conference to join Democrats in forming a “bipartisan governing coalition”.
“At this point, we simply need Republican partners willing to break with Maga extremism, reform the highly partisan House rules that were adopted at the beginning of this Congress and join us in finding common ground for the people,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed published on Friday.
So far, Republican partners have been difficult to find. Some of McCarthy’s allies blamed House Democrats for the speaker’s removal, accusing them of prioritizing their political goals over the good of the country. Democrats have scoffed at that argument, asserting that McCarthy brought about his own downfall by trying to appease the hard-right members who ultimately ousted him. McCarthy only won the speakership in January by making concessions to hard-right lawmakers, including a rule allowing any single member to introduce a motion to vacate the chair. That decision came back to haunt McCarthy this week.
“The same rightwing extremism that gave McCarthy the speakership was the same rightwing extremism that took away his speakership,” Seawright said. “House Democrats should continue to draw the contrast with extremism that has hijacked and pretty much taken over the Republican conference with the comparison and the contrast of what was able to be done” when the Democrats had the House majority.
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, suggested the speakership debacle could be a launchpad for Democrats to engage in a fuller discussion about rightwing extremism. With government funding due to run out in just a month, Green said it was urgent for Democrats to make a policy-based pitch against Republicans’ legislative agenda.
“Extremism doesn’t just mean they can’t rally their caucus on the House floor. Extremism means they would actually cut social security benefits for millions of current and future seniors,” Green said. “The extremists within an already extreme Republican party that are in charge are the same ones who would be most likely to use their leverage to cut programs like social security.”
As the House prepares for another speakership election, much of the conversation in Washington has focused on who might replace McCarthy. But for Green, the more important conversation involves how the new Republican speaker will govern with a newly emboldened hard-right faction in his conference. Steve Scalise and Jim Jordan, two speaker candidates, have also backed drastic government funding cuts, voting in favor of McCarthy’s recent failed proposal to temporarily reduce most government agencies’ budgets by up to 30%.
“I think it’s important to connect the dots between the chaos and extremism we’ve seen playing out in this leadership fight and what those same forces will attempt to do in the upcoming government funding fight,” Green said. “It’s very possible that members of the public perceive these as two very different stories, as opposed to two chapters in the same story.”