Rep. Matt Gaetz stood in an unfamiliar spot Tuesday as he pressed his case to boot Rep. Kevin McCarthy from the role of House speaker - the Democratic side of the chamber.
By the time Gaetz (R-Fla.) finally made good on his long-standing threats to force a vote to topple McCarthy (R-Calif.), his Republican colleagues were so fed up with him that they wouldn’t let him debate from within their caucus, banishing him to the minority Democratic side of the room.
Gaetz’s successful fight to remove McCarthy from the speakership has cost him in his own conference, lawmakers say. The GOP on Tuesday was considering expelling Gaetz from its caucus. McCarthy, meanwhile, told Republicans he would not seek reelection as speaker after Gaetz pushed him out.
“I’d love to have him out of the conference,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) told reporters Tuesday. “. . . He shouldn’t be in the Republican Party.”
In a GOP conference that has in recent years devoured its own - ostracizing members who have spoken out against former president Donald Trump and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol - so far only Gaetz seems to be at risk of formal dismissal.
Asked whether he was afraid of being exiled, Gaetz responded with the same brashness he brought to the House floor during the debate over McCarthy.
“If they want to expel me, let me know when they have the votes,” he said.
The GOP disdain for Gaetz, aside from the handful of hard-right Republicans who joined his motion to vacate the speakership, was clear all day Tuesday.
“You all know Matt Gaetz,” McCarthy told reporters after he was ousted. “You know it was personal.”
Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) assailed the Floridian on the House floor for soliciting campaign donations on the back of his motion to vacate the speakership.
“It’s what’s disgusting about Washington,” he said.
Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Calif.) referred to Gaetz as a “Republican running with scissors.”
And Rep. Derrick Van Orden (R-Wis.), seething on the House steps after the vote, said: “I will always put the best interests of the United States of America and my constituents above my own personal feelings. And clearly Matt Gaetz can’t do that.”
Gaetz was McCarthy’s main obstacle to the speakership in January, leading a band of rebels who refused to vote for the longtime GOP minority leader for the first 13 rounds of roll calls. In the 14th round, Gaetz softened his stance, but only slightly. He voted “present,” not a vote against McCarthy but also not in favor - and not enough to hand him the speaker’s gavel.
McCarthy approached Gaetz on the floor, then walked away, appearing dejected. Meanwhile, Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.) stormed over and lunged at Gaetz before being restrained by Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.). The Floridian sat unperturbed.
McCarthy was elected speaker after midnight in the 15th round of voting when Gaetz and other right-wing hard-liners voted “present,” lowering the threshold McCarthy needed to win office.
But by then, McCarthy had struck deals with those hard-liners that hemmed him in. The most noteworthy concession: A single member could bring a “motion to vacate the chair,” or call for a vote to remove the speaker.
Gaetz threatened to wield that power for months, then made clear on Sept. 12 that he would seek to depose McCarthy, when he said the speaker was “out of compliance” with the deal he struck in January.
Gaetz demanded McCarthy rectify those supposed breaches by instituting steep budget cuts during the September fight to fund the government and abandoning a spending deal McCarthy had made with President Biden in June. The president and speaker agreed to suspend the debt limit in exchange for limiting growth in federal discretionary spending. Conservatives quickly soured on that arrangement, which drew large numbers of Democratic votes on its passage.
Gaetz threatened to invoke the motion to vacate if McCarthy did not back away from that deal and instead pass 12 appropriations bills with draconian spending cuts. And if McCarthy made an end run around Gaetz and relied on Democratic votes to keep the government open, Gaetz would invoke the motion, too.
Over the weekend, that’s exactly what happened: McCarthy pushed through a deal to extend government funding into November at current spending levels but without billions of dollars in aid for Ukraine that Biden wanted. Again, Democrats backed the measure, which the Senate also adopted just ahead of a deadline for a shutdown.
Gaetz was livid. And his GOP colleagues were furious, too - but with him.
“I think there’s some reason to doubt whether or not Matt Gaetz is serious,” Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) told reporters on Tuesday. He called Gaetz’s crusade a miscalculation that would undercut Republicans’ narrow House majority.
“This was a vote for chaos,” Bacon said. “I think it hurts our country, our Congress. Republicans will be weaker for this come next November. And I thought the behavior of these eight folks [who voted against McCarthy] was shameful.”
After the vote, Gaetz said his party needed time to go through “the grieving process.” First, he said, was denial, as GOP leadership hoped they could pry away votes to save McCarthy’s gavel.
It wasn’t clear that lawmakers were in denial of the outcome, but they did appear to be reeling. “Give me a minute, guys,” Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) told reporters after the vote as colleagues offered him consolation drinks and cigars back at their offices. “Let me think through some things.”
Then, Gaetz said, would come (more) anger. Gaetz and Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) said they drew the ire of colleagues on their way out of the House chamber.
“I got cussed at and sneered at, and I get it,” Burchett said. “I’ve been down this road before. I’ve handled bullies before in my life.”
As the conference went into a closed-door meeting Tuesday to determine the GOP’s next move, Gaetz said, members were “headed toward bargaining.”