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Republicans Cut Off Their Own Heads

A gang of eight ousts a Speaker with no plan or replacement in mind.

Wall Street Journal Editorial Board | October 3, 2023

Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) at the Capitol in Washington on Tuesday. PHOTO: MANDEL NGAN/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

A band of eight Republicans succeeded in ousting Kevin McCarthy as House Speaker on Tuesday, and we trust they’re happy. They now have the chaos they wanted, though it isn’t clear what else they hope to achieve. Their clever plan seems to be to cut off their own heads.

Mr. McCarthy lost his job, but he rose in our esteem in recent days by the way he has handled this threatened coup. He put the country first on Saturday in refusing to let the plotters shut down the government for no good purpose. Then on Tuesday he refused to ask Democrats for a power-sharing deal in return for votes to rescue his Speakership. He put his party above his job, and his reward is that he is the first Speaker ousted in history. The vote was 216-210. In retrospect the die may have been cast at the start of this Congress when Mr. McCarthy conceded to a rule that any single Member could offer a motion to vacate his chair. He may have had no choice to win the job, and he did so assuming at least some goodwill among his critics. The reality is that they were always lying in wait to strike.

We refer to Reps. Matt Gaetz, Nancy Mace, Eli Crane, Andy Biggs, Matt Rosendale, Bob Good, Tim Burchett and Ken Buck. They united with Democrats to topple a Republican Speaker without a plan, a replacement, or even a policy goal in mind. Four percent of the Republican conference trumped the 96% who supported the Speaker.

Mr. Biggs argued on the floor that the House hadn’t passed the 12 annual spending bills on time, but that’s because of demands from Members like him. He and Mr. Gaetz offered mainly a list of grievances and supposedly failed promises that had no chance of being realized this Congress. Their real motive looks to be spite, personal and political, and the result is to sow chaos in their own ranks.

Democrats decided not to assist Mr. McCarthy, and no doubt they are enjoying the Republican turmoil. Their decision may have been made when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said on the weekend that she would vote to oust Mr. McCarthy. Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries would have jeopardized his own leadership if he had bucked the Democratic left. But Democrats may come to miss the former Speaker if the chaos lasts for some time and leads to government shutdowns or failure to pass aid to Ukraine. The next Speaker might be weaker than Mr. McCarthy and even less willing to say no to the rejectionists.

Mr. McCarthy accomplished more than he gets credit for during his short tenure as Speaker. He negotiated a debt-ceiling deal that put a cap on domestic discretionary spending and clawed back some unspent pandemic money. He created the special China committee that is building a bipartisan consensus on how to defend Taiwan and respond to the Communist Party’s ambitions. He also moved to restore some bipartisan comity to the Intelligence Committee after Adam Schiff’s partisan manipulation.

The ouster captures the degraded state of the Republican Party in this era of rage. Members in safe seats can fuel their own fund-raising and careers by claiming to “fight” against all and sundry without doing the hard work to accomplish what they claim to be fighting for. Mr. Gaetz is the prototype of this modern performance artist, as he raises money for a potential run for Florida Governor.

As we went to press, the path forward for the House wasn’t clear. North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry becomes Speaker Pro Tem, per a list Mr. McCarthy had submitted to the House clerk. But the search for a permanent Speaker could be long and chaotic.

Mr. McCarthy said Tuesday night in classy remarks that he won’t run again. Other names will surface, but who in the world would want the chair knowing it comes with the constant peril of being ousted? Anyone courted for the position should refuse to accept without a change in House rules so the support of at least 20 Members would be required to vacate the Speaker’s chair. The House majority can’t be held hostage to the Jacobins on either side of the aisle. Meanwhile, the House is essentially frozen. The putative GOP majority is weaker, and its ability to gain any policy victories has been undermined. Oversight of the Biden Administration will slow or stop. Republicans in swing districts who are vulnerable in 2024 will be especially wary of trusting the Gaetz faction, and regaining any unity of purpose will be that much harder. The crazy left and right are cheering, but no one else is.

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