WASHINGTON — The House voted Tuesday to oust Kevin McCarthy from the speaker's chair, with Rep. Matt Gaetz and seven other conservatives joining all Democrats present to remove him.
What happens next?
First, a temporary speaker takes over
The Office of the Speaker has been declared vacant. This does not immediately trigger a new speaker election, however, because of a succession list McCarthy, R-Calif., submitted to the House clerk in January. That list isn't public.
But Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., revealed shortly after McCarthy was removed that his name tops that list. McHenry will now serve as a temporary replacement under House rules.
Since 2003, House rules have required the speaker to submit a list of names to the clerk of members to act in the case of his or her vacancy. According to Rule I, clause 8 of the House rules, the next person on that list “shall act as Speaker pro tempore until the election of a Speaker or a Speaker pro tempore.” We now know that's Patrick McHenry; he'll take over as speaker in an acting capacity.
This is a different situation than in January, when the House started a new session and could not start any legislative business until a speaker was elected. Because it was the beginning of a new Congress, the House needed to elect a speaker in order to swear in members and pass the rules package.
McHenry suggested that members should meet in their party conferences before deciding on the path forward. An election for a permanent speaker could be delayed until the House is better prepared.
The House in uncharted territory
This is the first time in U.S. history that a speaker of the House has been voted out of office.
In 1910, Speaker Joseph Cannon, R-Ill., offered a motion to oust himself to put his detractors on the record. Republicans voted overwhelmingly to keep him in office. “Cannon, Shorn of His Power, Keeps Office,” read the New York Times headline the next day.
McHenry, as speaker pro tempore, is now in untested waters.
The acting speaker is unlikely to have the same powers as the speaker since "the intention was for them to act in a short-term capacity while the House selected a new speaker," said Catholic University professor Matthew Green, author of "The Speaker of the House: A Study of Leadership."
How quickly could the House move to elect a permanent speaker?
House rules do not lay out how long the speaker pro tempore can remain in power before the chamber votes on a new permanent speaker.
The House could proceed soon to the election of a new speaker or decide to hold it at a later time.
“In the event of a vacancy in the speakership, there is no time frame that the House must follow to elect a new speaker,” Green said earlier Tuesday. “However, as a practical matter, the House will want to elect a new speaker quickly in order for the chamber to move forward with its legislative business.”
There were some hints that McHenry was next in line
On Jan. 9, the House chair announced “that the Speaker has delivered to the Clerk a letter dated January 7, 2023, listing Members in the order in which each shall act as Speaker pro tempore." Essentially McCarthy gave a list of names of members he would want to act in his absence if he was no longer able to serve. These names were not public, so there was no way to know who is on the list until the speakership is vacant.
But separately in January, McCarthy also appointed members to act as speaker pro tempore to sign enrolled bills. These names were made public in the Congressional Record, offering a look at who McCarthy trusts in his absence.
McHenry, a top McCarthy ally who also helped lead debt ceiling negotiations on his behalf, was at the top of that list.
Also on the list were: Rep. Richard Hudson of North Carolina; Rep. Adrian Smith, of Nebraska; Rep. Robert Wittman, of Virginia; Rep. Andy Harris, of Maryland; and Reps. John Joyce and Guy Reschenthaler, of Pennsylvania, to act as speaker pro tempore to sign enrolled bills. These members are typically chosen mostly for one of two reasons: because they are allies of the speaker's or because of their districts' proximity to Washington, so they can preside over pro forma sessions when the House is out.