Politics / January 4, 2024

Kevin McCarthy’s Final Act of Retribution Totally Screws Over the House GOP

With his exit from the House, the embittered former speaker leaves his caucus with a collapsed majority that may not be able to govern.

John Nichols
Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) greets staffers and members while conducting a photo-op in the U.S. Capitol’s Rayburn Room on Thursday, December 14, 2023.

Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) greets staffers and members while conducting a photo-op in the US Capitol’s Rayburn Room on Thursday, December 14, 2023.

(Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Kevin McCarthy formally ended one of the most lamentable political careers in American history Sunday, when he resigned from the US House seat he had occupied since 2007.

Tellingly, hardly anyone noticed. Everyone seemed to be ready to forget that the last of “The Young Guns”—the moniker once adopted by McCarthy along with fellow failed Republican leaders Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor—had ridden out of town. McCarthy says he plans “to serve America in new ways.” In reality, McCarthy is serving McCarthy, shamelessly setting himself up for what most observers expect will be a new career as an influence peddler, er, lobbyist.

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But McCarthy’s departure was notable for one amusing, and politically significant reason. With the end of his tenure as the representative from California’s 20th Congressional District, McCarthy—in what appears to be a fit of pique—screwed over the House Republican Caucus that he had led until his unceremonious removal from the speakership last fall. By choosing to quit at the end of 2023, McCarthy took with him the one thing he had to offer his fellow partisans: protection for their rapidly dwindling majority.

With the expulsion of New York Representative George Santos on December 1 of last year, the Republicans were left with a four-seat cushion in the House—one of the narrowest majorities in the chamber’s history. And Republicans knew that majority was going to get even narrower, as Ohio Representative Bill Johnson had indicated months ago that he would be resigning early in 2024 to take up a lucrative position as president of Youngstown State University.

With McCarthy’s kiss-off to the caucus, and with Johnson’s planned exit on January 21, Republicans will be left with a nail-bitingly narrow 219-213 majority—meaning that, if just two Republican representatives fail to show up for a party-line vote, or if they reject the party whip for whatever reason, the Democrats could get the upper hand.

Practically, what this means is that House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) and his fractious caucus, find themselves in a historically precarious position as Congress prepares to take up a wide range of contentious domestic and foreign policy issues—including the question of whether the federal government will literally shut down. It’s true that special elections that will be held in coming months could build out the GOP majority a bit. But that’s not guaranteed; indeed, Santos’s seat could very well flip to the Democrats.

There’s simply no question that the GOP’s circumstance in the House has been made worse by McCarthy’s decision to put his personal bitterness ahead of party loyalty.

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How much worse?

Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, McCarthy’s archnemesis, answered that question in a series of social-media posts and interviews where he ripped the former speaker—whose ouster Gaetz helped facilitate—for creating a “very real math problem” for a caucus that is struggling to function. “His unwillingness to stay and vote for even the most basic Republican priorities until the end of his term may imperil our ability to get the job done,” complained Gaetz.

“This is not an act of patriotism or moving on to the next fight,” argued Gaetz. “It is an act of abject selfishness. And it is revealing that, if Kevin McCarthy can’t swing the gavel and be in charge and make the decisions, then he’s not willing to be a team player.”

So infuriated was the Florida Republican that he even suggested that former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was a more honorable politician than McCarthy.

“Nancy Pelosi, for all of her flaws, and they are many, she at least stuck around,” said Gaetz. “She didn’t hurt her team by saying, ‘Well, if I can’t be the quarterback, I’m just going to take the ball and go home.’”

When Kevin McCarthy has Matt Gaetz saying nice things about Nancy Pelosi, you can rest assured that the former speaker has done his caucus some serious damage.

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John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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