Where the House goes from here, no one can say.
Tempers are red hot in Washington and across-the-political-aisle relationships – endangered but crucial in times of crisis – have all but collapsed.
The House faces pressing questions of how to avert a government shutdown, whether to continue to fund Ukraine’s defence against the Russian invasion and whether to proceed with an impeachment inquiry – unprecedented in many respects – into US President Joe Biden.
Meanwhile, procedural weapons Congress once reserved for the most dire offences – censure, expulsion, impeachment and now the motion to vacate the speaker’s chair – have become common.
Many Republicans were left in a state of total exasperation, having begged their colleagues not to follow through.
“If we vacate the chair, the government will shut down. Our credit rating will go down; interest rates will go up,” congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican known for working with Democrats, warned hours before the vote to oust McCarthy. “Ukraine will be victimised and lose that war to Russia. That is what is at stake here. Not to mention the institutional erosion that will occur.”
McCarthy, who had managed to hold his conference together for nine months by taking a defiant stance toward the rest of Washington, insisted on fighting to hold on to his speakership to the end.
He told Republicans at a morning meeting that he wanted to get on with the motion to vacate vote and insisted he would not give Democrats any concessions to save his job.
Bring it on, was McCarthy’s message.
He seemed to have a chance of surviving: most Republicans rallied around McCarthy as they met in the Capitol’s basement, giving him several rounds of applause.
But Democrats, at their own meeting in the Capitol’s sublevels, played through what they see as the black marks of McCarthy’s record: how he had continued to support former president Donald Trump even after a mob of his supporters stormed the Capitol and how he had catered to his party’s right-wing during his nine months as speaker.
In the end, they united around Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries and decided to wash their hands of what they cast as a Republican problem.
“Kevin McCarthy brought this madness upon himself,” said congressman Jamie Raskin, a Democrat from Maryland, citing how McCarthy had agreed to allow any one member to bring the motion to vacate as part of a deal with right-wing lawmakers to win the speaker’s gavel in January.
“There seems to be a major political party now addicted to insurrection, rebellion, overthrow and not to governance.”
McCarthy stood just feet behind him, nodding and smiling to his fellow Republicans, but refusing to acknowledge Gaetz’s presence.
After it became clear from a first procedural vote that Democrats would not save him, McCarthy settled into his seat for the hourlong debate over his future.
He glanced at his phone; he ran his hands over the wooden arms of his chair. But he declined to speak in his own defence, instead dispatching his closest allies to defend his record.
“Chaos is Speaker McCarthy,” Gaetz said on the floor, suggesting a series of reforms could make Washington work better. But insults and personal slights – bottled up for months and years among Republicans – soon exploded onto the House floor.
The normally raucous chamber – filled with hundreds of lawmakers – grew sombre and hushed as the roll-call vote began.
One by one, for nearly 45 minutes, lawmakers rose and stated their vote. Republicans hung their heads as eight of their colleagues and every Democrat voted to remove McCarthy. He was out.
McCarthy smiled as the House clerks tallied the vote. A few moments later, he was no longer speaker and one of his closest House allies, congressman Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, became caretaker of the speaker’s gavel.
“Shocking … just the finality of it,” said congressman Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Foreign Relations Committee. “We don’t have a speaker, we don’t have a leader and that’s the message that’s sending to our adversaries.”
Republicans and Democrats dispersed, reeling and grasping for their next moves. Republicans will try to coalesce around a new leader after McCarthy ruled out another bid to become speaker.
They face a leadership vacuum and deep divisions, with many Republicans seething at Gaetz and those who joined with him.
McCarthy, for his part, took a chance to settle political scores. At a quickly assembled news conference after nightfall, he began by citing Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, but soon indulged himself with unflattering stories about his political rivals – both Republicans and Democrats – and suggested he would use his fundraising and political clout to target them.
He concluded the extended banter with reporters with a barbed farewell: “I’m sure I won’t miss you”.