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Kevin McCarthy’s position as Speaker of the House of Representatives was in peril on Tuesday after 11 Republicans voted to proceed with an effort to oust him and Democrats said they would not back him in the face of a Republican rebellion.
In a crucial procedural vote on Tuesday afternoon, the House voted 218-208 to proceed with a challenge to McCarthy from Matt Gaetz, the firebrand Republican congressman from Florida who spearheaded the rebellion after the Speaker struck a deal with Democrats to avert a government shutdown over the weekend.
The procedural vote sets the stage for a final vote later on Tuesday that is likely to see McCarthy removed as Speaker.
Given Republicans control the lower chamber of Congress by a razor-thin margin, McCarthy can only afford to lose a handful of Republican votes if he is to keep the Speaker’s gavel — unless a critical number of Democrats come to his defence.
But Democratic leadership on Tuesday quashed suggestions that they would help McCarthy keep power, advising their members to “vote yes” to oust the Speaker.
All 207 Democrats in the House chamber voted against McCarthy in the procedural vote, while five more did not vote.
“It is now the responsibility of the GOP members to end the House Republican Civil War,” Hakeem Jeffries, the top House Democrat, said in a letter to party colleagues.
“Given their unwillingness to break from MAGA extremism in an authentic and comprehensive manner, House Democratic leadership will vote yes on the pending Republican motion to vacate the chair.”
The votes lay bare the deepening splits in the GOP and the sharp divides between Republicans and Democrats, who are loath to support a Speaker who is trusted by few members of President Joe Biden’s party.
Gaetz moved to oust McCarthy late on Monday, introducing a resolution “declaring the office of Speaker of the House of the Representatives to be vacant”. It was only the third time in US history that a lawmaker has tried to oust a Speaker using the procedural tool known as a motion to vacate.
The threat to McCarthy’s speakership is the latest sign of turmoil in Congress, where hardline Republican House members last week took the government to the brink of shutdown in an attempt to cut federal spending, including aid for Ukraine’s war effort.
McCarthy, who was elected Speaker on the 15th round of voting in January, remained optimistic after a closed-door meeting with Republican House members on Tuesday morning.
“If I counted how many times somebody wanted to knock me out, I would have been gone a long time ago,” the California Republican said.
But other Republicans were more circumspect.
Asked whether he thought McCarthy had the votes to survive, Byron Donalds, the Republican congressman from Florida, said: “I don’t know. I think on this one, it is every member for themselves.”
Gaetz has long been a thorn in the side of McCarthy’s leadership. He was the Speaker’s chief tormentor back in January, and has locked horns repeatedly with McCarthy in the months since.
The Florida congressman was among Republicans angered by McCarthy’s deal with Democrats over the weekend. The deal led to a bipartisan vote to keep the government funded at current funding levels until mid-November, when many Republicans had pushed for budget cuts.
McCarthy defended the deal, telling reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday morning: “Keeping government open, and paying our troops was the right decision. I stand by that decision. At the end of the day, if I have to lose my job over it, so be it.”
McCarthy has said Gaetz is carrying out a personal vendetta stemming from a congressional ethics investigation into allegations that the Florida congressman engaged in sex trafficking. The Department of Justice ended its own investigation into Gaetz earlier this year without charging him. Gaetz has denied any wrongdoing.
“Matt Gaetz had planned to do this from the very beginning,” the Speaker told CNBC. “He has got personal things in his life that he has challenges with, that’s fine.”