It was one of the most chaotic days in the history of the House of Representatives and, at the end of it, Republicans were left with a pressing question: Who’s next?
Just hours after Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) became the first House Speaker ever to be voted out of the position, he promptly announced at an emergency meeting that he would not seek the gavel again, a decision made so swiftly that it shocked GOP lawmakers.
Suddenly, the Republicans who had entered the meeting swearing they would only vote for McCarthy—as many times as it took, until he was back in power—were left in the previously unthinkable situation of finding someone else to lead the party.
That won’t be easy.
For all of McCarthy’s faults, he was one of just a few Republicans with the relationships and credibility required to lead a fractious and combative group of 221 members. Although he lost the two roll-call votes to save his gavel Tuesday, they demonstrated his broad support from the moderate to far-right wings of the conference.
Given that it took just eight Republicans to depose McCarthy and throw the chamber into chaos, it’s clear that the job of Republican speaker in this Congress might be impossible at worst—or a short-term assignment at best.
“You need 218. Unfortunately, 4 percent of our conference can join all the Democrats, and dictate who can be the Republican speaker,” McCarthy said at a lengthy press conference Tuesday night, after he told members he would not seek the office again. “I don’t think that rule is good for the institution, but apparently, I’m the only one.”
Firmly in uncharted territory, the House is essentially frozen until a new speaker is elected. The chamber is adjourning until next week, when there will be a forum where Republicans aspiring to claim the gavel can make their cases.
Streaming out of the emergency meeting in the Capitol basement Tuesday night, dazed GOP lawmakers attempted to process the seismic news while answering questions from the assembled press about who they want to succeed McCarthy.
Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA), chairman of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, told The Daily Beast, over and over again—as a sort of mantra—that he wanted the most conservative speaker he could get. But even Perry acknowledged that trying to govern with this slim and fractious of a majority wouldn’t be easy.
“It’s a tough job,” he said. “You got to lead, though, and get after it.”
To many Republicans, that’s exactly what McCarthy did. The fact that eight lawmakers removed him and threw the chamber into turmoil—suspending any work on the spending bills they say they wanted him to urgently complete—seemed to underscore the hollowness of their arguments and the fundamental ungovernability of the House GOP.
“I’m going to go back to the district because we can’t do anything,” lamented Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-GA). “Our investigations are at a halt, all legislative action is at a halt, all appropriations—we’re trying to cut spending—all that has come to a dead halt.”
“It’s very frustrating, because we had a lot of momentum,” he said. “We were doing a lot of good things—things that many of us have fought for years and years to do.”
Most members resisted the urge to immediately start bandying about names of potential candidates—particularly McCarthy allies who might have been fuming that the likes of Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) just toppled a leader backed by all but eight of his 221 members.
“Can we wait for the body to be cold before we start to figure out, you know, who’s the next candidate?” asked Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-SD).
In this cutthroat majority, however, there would be no such waiting. Almost immediately, conservatives began quietly discussing four names in the succession conversation: Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA), Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-MN), Republican Study Committee Chairman Kevin Hern (R-OK), and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-OH).
The contest between these lawmakers—and anyone else who chooses to run—is poised to transform what had been a mostly united party behind McCarthy into warring factions riven by personal and political hostility.
Jordan, who entered the GOP conference meeting saying “I’m for McCarthy” no matter what the question was—like when The Daily Beast asked if he would support removing Gaetz from the GOP conference—was decidedly less resolute minutes later after the meeting.
When The Daily Beast asked who he was supporting for speaker now, Jordan sounded like a person who was positioning himself for the job.
“That’s up to the conference,” he said. “Totally up to the conference.”
When The Daily Beast asked specifically about a potential “Speaker Jordan,” the Ohio Republican pressed on with his canned line.
“Look, this is a decision for the conference,” he said. “We got to—we got to get the conference together and find out.”
But Jordan is likely unpalatable for the vast majority of House Republicans, given his history as the founding chairman of the Freedom Caucus—a group many GOP members see as a corrosive force that pushed the party toward the chaos that defined the brief McCarthy speakership.
As the No. 2 Republican, Scalise would naturally be next in line for the job. And it didn’t take long for him to start campaigning for the job; he began calling members Tuesday night, asking for their support, according to Politico and Punchbowl News.
Scalise has long been considered the most conservative member of this leadership team, winning him credibility on the right flank. Gaetz has said he would be interested in backing Scalise for the job, as have other Republicans who voted to oust McCarthy, like Rep. Tim Burchett (R-TN). A more centrist Republican, Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-TX), also tweeted his support for Scalise late Tuesday.
“Right now, I’m not sure Jesus could make it through.”
— Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) on electing a new speaker
But for some critics of this leadership team, Scalise may be tainted by many of the same deals and decisions that McCarthy made—and his closeness to McCarthy could be a nonstarter for some. Scalise also just recently announced he has blood cancer. Even though he has said his prognosis is good thanks to treatment, the situation could concern some members, given the rigorous demands of the speakership.
Still, Scalise is a skilled lieutenant who is more than familiar with corralling votes. He served as the GOP whip—the person responsible for securing the votes for Republican bills—for more than eight years, and won that position as the result of a brutal leadership race in 2014 that required him demonstrating he has the ability to win these types of internal GOP elections.
Some members explicitly called for “fresh blood” in leadership on Tuesday night, which would seemingly exclude Scalise.
Emmer could perhaps bridge the gap between the current leadership team and those calls for a new leader. A former chairman of the House GOP’s campaign arm for the last two cycles, he has overseen the elections of every Republican in Congress, and helped win 13 new GOP seats in 2020 and nine in 2022. In return, Emmer narrowly won the No. 3 job in the House Republican conference last November.
In captaining the GOP’s election strategy for the last two cycles, Emmer is well-versed in the grievance politics that have come to define the Trump era of the Republican Party. Conservative members have reportedly been floating Emmer as a palatable alternative who does not carry the same McCarthy-adjacent baggage as Scalise.
When The Daily Beast asked Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) about potential speaker replacements Tuesday night, Biggs—one of the eight Republicans to vote against McCarthy—was cagey.
“I got ideas but I’m not going to share them with you,” he said.
When The Daily Beast brought up Emmer, he gave a menacing smile.
But some figures in Trump’s orbit have soured on Emmer, including prominent MAGA influencers on social media. They would likely try to kick up antagonism within the party base toward the Minnesotan if he were to run for speaker.
Hern, who leads the largest bloc of conservatives, told The Daily Beast leaving the meeting that he was interested in the job.
“If that’s something that’s available, and people want me to do that, I’ll certainly look at it,” said Hern, who was floated as a speaker candidate when McCarthy was struggling to get the votes for the gavel back in January.
And then, of course, there’s the name that looms over every speaker discussion: Donald Trump.
Already, some members were throwing out the idea of Trump serving as speaker. But if you needed an indication of how unrealistic that idea is, consider that Trump—the twice-impeached former president currently campaigning for the White House while under indictment for 91 felonies—couldn’t really weigh in on the House drama today because he was busy receiving a gag order in court.
In the near term, Republicans have another thorny question to deal with: that of vengeance.
Never well liked to begin with, Gaetz is now seen as an outright enemy by many of his colleagues after pulling off his bid to oust McCarthy.
There’s a certain irony to Gaetz putting the knife in McCarthy. Gaetz is credibly accused of having sex with a 17-year-old when he was a 35-year-old member of Congress, and McCarthy largely stood by Gaetz, refusing to ever remove him from his committees. But Gaetz has suggested—as recently as Monday—that his effort to remove McCarthy had a bit to do with the Ethics Committee continuing to look into Gaetz’s scandals.
Now Gaetz has repaid McCarthy by successfully stripping him of his speaker’s gavel, and some of the former speaker’s allies believe Gaetz deserves to be expelled from the Republican conference.
Asked if he supported removing Gaetz from the GOP conference, Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA) deadpanned, “Why just him?”
“I’m sure we’ll have that conversation,” said Newhouse, one of just two remaining Republicans to have supported Trump’s impeachment after Jan. 6. “Emotions are pretty raw right now—I think it’s early for that kind of reaction.”
Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE), a vocal McCarthy ally, told The Daily Beast that he was more than supportive of removing Gaetz from their ranks.
“He’s not a Republican,” Bacon said. “He’s an anarchist.”
When he was asked about removing any of the seven other members who voted against McCarthy, Bacon made it clear he was only currently pushing for Gaetz.
“He’s the leader,” he said. “He’s the leader of the chaos caucus.”
But other leadership loyalists weren’t ready to go there. “Right now, what we need to do as members of the House is call a timeout, a pause, realize what’s happened and then regroup and move forward next week in a positive way,” said Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN).
As reports trickled out Tuesday night revealing the machinations and maneuverings of McCarthy’s potential successors, some Republicans were brutally honest about the difficulty of the job he or she might face.
Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT), for instance, went on a prolonged rant about all the conservative priorities that these self-described conservative members were holding up by taking down McCarthy, and he suggested there may not be anyone in the conference who could find a majority.
“Right now, I’m not sure Jesus could make it through,” Zinke said, adding that McCarthy’s detractors were just “continuing to create chaos.”
Zinke said there were two types of people who come to Washington: the people who want to build and fix it, and the people who want to “come to town and destroy it and burn it.”
“I’m not going to tolerate people that say one thing and do another,” he said.
Dutifully playing the happy warrior at his exit press conference, McCarthy attempted to remain graceful in defeat, even continuing to defend his much-criticized impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden and blaming Democrats for damaging the institution over Jan. 6, which saw mobs of Trump supporters literally attack the institution itself—only to have Republicans return hours later and vote to overturn the election.
McCarthy was one of those Republicans, as was Gaetz, Scalise, Jordan, Hern, Burchett, Perry, Loudermilk, Biggs, and Fleischmann. (Of the Republicans mentioned in this article, only Emmer, Gonzales, Newhouse, and Bacon voted against overturning the election.)
But the speaker spared some of the venom he usually reserves for Democrats for the Republicans who voted to oust him.
When one reporter referred to that group as conservatives, McCarthy finally showed some of the bitterness he has been careful to conceal for years.
“They are not conservatives,” he said. “They are not conservatives and do not have the right to the title.”
Zachary Petrizzo contributed to this report.