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Commentary: Ouster of US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy highlights deeper dysfunction in the Republican Party

SAN ANTONIO, Texas: In a historic vote, US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was ousted from his leadership position on Tuesday (Oct 3) by a small group of radical members of his own party, led by Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida.

The Republican conference has been plagued with dysfunction for a while now. Still, the vote was a stunning display of just how broken and dysfunctional the system has become.

Other House speakers have been pushed out, and Republican Speaker John Boehner retired while facing a threat of being ousted. But this is the first time a sitting speaker has been removed by a vote.

Gaetz exercised a little-known procedure that hadn’t been used in more than one hundred years to push a vote to “vacate” the speaker’s chair. When it was over, eight Republicans and every Democrat had voted to remove McCarthy.

Under procedures established after 9/11 to ensure continuity of government, an acting speaker pro tempore was appointed from a list McCarthy had previously drawn up. Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, a McCarthy ally who spoke fiercely in his defence during Tuesday’s debate, will serve in that job until a new speaker is elected.

It’s unclear when that vote might happen. At a closed-door meeting Tuesday night, McCarthy told fellow Republicans that he will not run again.

While the vote showed he had the support of the vast majority of the conference, it’s difficult to see how he would have mounted a comeback. It took a tortuous 15 ballots for him to win the job back in January due to the same group of extreme Republicans who voted for his ouster, and the party might be ready to move on.

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SPEAKER FIGHT IS JUST A SIDESHOW

The last time there was an attempt to remove a speaker was 1910, when Republicans tried to oust Speaker Joseph Cannon of Illinois. They were unsuccessful, but the intra-party fighting and divisions probably contributed to a Democratic takeover.

For all of the history and importance of Tuesday’s events, it’s also true that the Speaker fight is in many ways a sideshow, an even more dysfunctional attempt by a handful of Republicans to use a quirk in House rules to defy the overwhelming bulk of their conference who were satisfied with McCarthy’s leadership (or, are at least willing to vote to keep him as speaker).

The real story isn’t about Gaetz and McCarthy. It’s about some 50 or more radical Republicans – “radical” because they simply don’t believe in compromise and don’t accept that it’s needed to govern, even when their party holds only a slim majority in the House and must deal with a Democratic majority in the Senate and a Democrat in the White House.

And it’s about the remainder of the House Republicans who haven’t figured out a way to deal with the radicals within their own party. One of the concessions McCarthy made to these extremists to win the speakership also made it easier for them to call Tuesday’s vote.

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DYSFUNCTION IS GETTING WORSE

Observers have been calling House Republicans dysfunctional since before McCarthy was elected to Congress in 2006. And the dysfunction is getting worse, regardless of how the speaker fight plays out.

For example, while only a handful of Republicans joined Gaetz in trying to bring McCarthy down, 21 Republicans refused to vote for his ill-fated measure to keep the government running last week – and 90 of them voted against McCarthy’s last-minute successful attempt to avert a shutdown.

Perhaps symbolic of that is that while only eight Republicans ultimately voted against McCarthy, 11 voted against an earlier motion to kill Gaetz’s manoeuvre without a final vote. Normally, one would expect members to stick with their party on procedural votes. But not these Republicans.

Last week Republicans managed to bring an agriculture spending Bill to the House floor, but it failed badly. Even the spending Bills that they’ve managed to pass are still dead on arrival in the Senate and no House Republicans have a plan for reaching a deal because so many of them are suspicious of just the idea of cutting deals.

We don’t know who might replace McCarthy. Nor do we know how long this particular fight will last. What we do know is that the larger dysfunction in the House Republican conference will continue.

Kevin McCarthy has been ousted as US House Speaker. What's next for US politics? Listen:

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