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The House can't work without a speaker. How will it choose McCarthy's successor?

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) enters his office at the U.S. Capitol on Monday, the day before he was voted out as speaker.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) enters his office at the U.S. Capitol on Monday, the day before he was voted out as speaker.

The House is without a leader — and in uncharted territory — after eight hard-line Republicans and unified Democrats voted to oust House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in a historic 216-210 vote on Tuesday.

Crucially, it can't conduct any legislative work without an elected speaker. Members must elect a new one before they can get back to their to-do lists, which include funding the government to avoid a shutdown in the next 43 days.

North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry, who chairs the Financial Services Committee, has been named "speaker pro tempore," an interim role with limited authority. His first act was to declare the House in recess (with an especially dramatic gavel bang).

With McCarthy declining to give it another shot, several House GOP leaders have announced they will run run: Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, the No. 2 House Republican.

Candidates will need either 218 votes or a majority of lawmakers present to secure the speakership. It's not clear how long that process would take — McCarthy needed 15 rounds of voting over four days to earn the title.

Rep. Mark Alford of Missouri, a Republican who supported McCarthy, told Morning Edition on Wednesday that his party has a plan to "move forward with a conservative agenda" and "show our body and our nation that we are not dysfunctional."

He said House Republicans will convene on Tuesday for a forum — led by McHenry and Conference Chair Elise Stefanik — at which candidates for the speakership will be able to make their case. Lawmakers will vote the next day, he added.

"This is not the way it should have been done, but this is a new day, it's time to move forward," Alford said. "Our ship does not have a rudder and we must find that rudder soon."

Who wants to be the House speaker?

McCarthy wanted the job so badly that he made several major concessions — including changing the rules to make it easier to challenge his leadership position — to far-right members of his party in order to secure the votes he needed.

And the problems he faced aren't likely to subside for his successor, GOP strategists told Morning Edition. In fact, they say it may even be harder, since the dysfunction is so deep-seated and the House has so much urgent work to do.

"When McCarthy first got the job he at least had a bit of a honeymoon, about six months, before they had to do anything important," said Brendan Buck, who worked for former House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan. "This next person is going to be right in the meat grinder right away."

Who wants in besides Scalise and Jordan? Republican Study Committee Chairman Kevin Hern, R-Okla., is also a potential candidate.

"There could be some dark horses, but I think people are going to watch what the big names do before they really make any aggressive moves right now," said GOP strategist Liam Donovan.

It's possible that McHenry could be in his job for weeks. As speaker pro tempore, McHenry's authority "is untested. There is not a manual. There is not a book. This has never been done before," Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., told reporters.

Montana GOP Rep. Matt Rosendale, one of the eight Republicans who joined Democrats in voting to remove McCarthy as speaker on Tuesday, told All Things Consideredthat when it comes to hearing from candidates at next week's forum, "the No. 1 trait that I'm looking for is someone that I can trust that when they make commitments to the [Republican] conference, that when they leave that room, that they're not going to go back on those commitments."

Rosendale and other GOP members who voted to fire McCarthy were critical that the former speaker had pushed a bipartisan bill to fund the government and avoid a shutdown.

"We have to have compromise because we have divided government, but you cannot allow the Republican majority in the House of Representatives to accept dictates from the Democrat party, they cannot dictate our policy," Rosendale said.

What's to stop this from happening again?

Party infighting brought the House to this moment. What does that mean for its future?

Buck notes that Congress has had trouble "doing even the basic things, and that's ultimately what Kevin McCarthy paid the price for."

"It wasn't any sort of bold initiative that he was trying to push for, what triggered this was just a simple 45-day bill to keep the government open," he adds. "It does not bode well for Republican governance going forward. I think that Republicans are going to have to sort of dismiss this as just internal housekeeping, but the problems that exist are really deep-seated."

Donovan agrees, and thinks the way the process has played out has perhaps galvanized the party. He believes most House Republicans, other than the eight hard-liners who ousted McCarthy, are united to some degree.

The question, he adds, is how to get around the outliers in a House with Republicans holding such a slim majority. Is putting legislation on the floor now synonymous with putting the speakership at risk?

"Looking forward, it does seem to be the case that if you make a deal, then there are going to be a handful of people that look to take you down," Donovan adds. "So I think there does have to be some understanding between the minority and the majority that we're not going to punish people for doing the right thing."

Rep. Alford says one thing that would help is changing back the rule that allows a single lawmaker to call for a motion to vacate the chair. He told Morning Edition that he's long been in favor of needing a majority of the majority — "50 percent plus one" — to start that process. He said the current iteration cost McCarthy his speakership.

"It was just too much power vested in so few people that could determine the course of history," he added. "And I think it put Kevin McCarthy in peril from the very beginning."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.