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Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is calling it quits, announcing Wednesday that he will leave Congress at the end of the month after 17 years on Capitol Hill.
The decision was hardly a surprise. McCarthy’s historic ouster as Speaker in October had stripped him of power, left him with no real role in the GOP conference and poisoned his relationship with the conservatives who led his removal.
Still, his exit will leave a void in the Republican conference, where McCarthy had risen quickly through the ranks, assuming the top leadership role for the better part of the last five years and emerging as the GOP’s premier fundraiser and candidate recruiter, which paved the way for the party’s takeover of the House last year.
Here are some of the highlights from McCarthy’s up-and-down tenure on Capitol Hill.
A Young Gun
After arriving in Congress in 2007, McCarthy quickly joined forces with two other up-and-coming Republicans — Reps. Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Eric Cantor (Va.) — who, beginning in the mid-aughts, sought to remold the image of the GOP.
Frustrated with the ethics scandals that had rocked Republicans in previous years, and the spending binge under President George W. Bush that turned budget surpluses into massive deficits, the ambitious trio vowed to push the party back to its conservative roots, with a sharp focus on smaller government and debt reduction.
The group set out recruiting a new crop of staunch conservatives, and their efforts would ultimately pay off when Republicans won control of the House in 2010 after just four years in the minority wilderness. But the campaign also came at a personal cost.
Many of the conservative recruits came from the anti-establishment Tea Party mold and viewed the Young Guns as targets when they eventually rose to assume leadership roles.
Cantor, the majority leader, suffered a stunning primary defeat in 2014 at the hands of the more conservative Dave Brat. Ryan, after rising to the Speakership, was nudged into retirement by his right flank in 2019. And McCarthy, in similar fashion, is heading early for the exits following his stunning fall from power.
2015: Freedom Caucus blocks his ascension
When Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) resigned in 2015, McCarthy, as majority leader, was widely expected to replace him at the top of the party.
It didn’t happen.
Just one day after announcing his candidacy, McCarthy stirred a storm of controversy when he went on Fox News and suggested the GOP’s long-running Benghazi investigation was designed largely to harm Hillary Clinton politically.
The remarks frustrated fellow Republicans, particularly those in the Freedom Caucus, who were already doubtful of McCarthy’s conservative bona fides and eager to block his ascent. In a stunning move, McCarthy dropped out of the race on the day most of Washington expected him to secure the Speaker nomination. Republicans needed a figure who could unite the divided conference, he said at the time.
“I am not that guy.”
McCarthy was among the many Republicans who promoted the false notion that former President Trump had won reelection in 2020. But the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol revealed that there were limits to McCarthy’s allegiance to his White House ally.
The Republican leader phoned Trump in the midst of the attack, irate that the president hadn’t put out a statement calling off his supporters. (Trump responded by blaming far-left groups for the attack, then suggesting the pro-Trump rioters were more patriotic than the lawmakers under siege).
Several days later, McCarthy went to the House floor to say explicitly that Trump “bears responsibility” for the violence and a failure to call off the mob “when he saw what was unfolding.”
The criticisms, however, would be short-lived.
When it became clear that the Republicans on and off of Capitol Hill were sticking with Trump, McCarthy — who needed Trump’s support to become Speaker — quickly reversed course.
Just weeks after the attack, he made a secret visit to Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort. McCarthy would go on to say that Trump did not “provoke” the riot, and he helped to orchestrate the expulsion of then-Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from GOP leadership for her refusal to indulge Trump’s lies about his election defeat.
Since then, McCarthy has either downplayed or declined to discuss Trump’s role in the riot, instead blaming Democrats for what he says was their failure to secure the Capitol that day.
A historic Speakership race
McCarthy won the gavel in January, officially cementing himself as the 55th Speaker of the House and fulfilling his longtime goal after years of rising through the GOP ranks.
But it wasn’t without a long — and historic — fight on the House floor.
It took McCarthy 15 ballots over the span of four days to clinch the Speakership after a coalition of hard-line conservatives withheld support from his bid over a variety of concerns they had with the GOP leader.
But the California Republican — known for his optimistic attitude and who frequently said he would never give up — remained in the race, bringing his nomination back to the floor ballot after ballot until, eventually, he cobbled together enough support to clinch the gavel.
“That was easy, huh?” McCarthy quipped before delivering his victory speech in the chamber. “I never thought we’d get up here.”
But McCarthy never won unanimous support from the GOP conference: Six Republicans voted “present” on the final ballot, lowering the threshold McCarthy needed to win the Speakership and, effectively, handing him the gavel.
Five of those Republicans would later vote to oust him, ending his tenure atop the chamber after allowing him to enter the leadership position months earlier.
Debt ceiling victory
From the moment McCarthy won the gavel, it was clear that a looming deadline to raise the debt limit and avoid a catastrophic economic default would be among the toughest — if not the most challenging — hurdles the new Speaker would face in his tenure atop the chamber.
The ultimate battle met those expectations.
McCarthy wrangled most of his conference together to pass a conservative debt limit plan in April, which dragged President Biden to the negotiating table, decreased the chance of passing a “clean” debt ceiling increase — which Democrats had pushed for — and gave Republicans leverage in the high-stakes talks.
Those negotiations continued throughout the month of May, with McCarthy and his top deputies — Reps. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) and Garret Graves (R-La.) — engaging in countless conversations with Biden and White House officials at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
The talks — which took place at all hours of the day and, at least one time, broke down in a dramatic fashion — eventually ended with a deal to suspend the debt limit for two years and implement a number of cost-cutting measures.
The agreement was seen as a win for McCarthy, passing the House with a hodgepodge of moderate Democrats and Republicans, pushing the president to the negotiating table and, in the end, leading to a debt limit increase with conditions.
But the deal also marked the beginning of the end for McCarthy. The package, which was less conservative than the GOP bill cleared in April, frustrated hard-liners — and rumblings about a potential motion to vacate began circulating.
A historic ouster
McCarthy was fond of telling reporters that he’s underestimated, and for much of the year he could back up that claim. Defying predictions, he had weathered the marathon Speaker’s vote, ushered through much of the Republicans’ legislative agenda and successfully negotiated a debt deal with Biden.
But in September, when he backed a short-term spending package to prevent a government shutdown, the honeymoon quickly ended.
McCarthy’s right-wing detractors, already infuriated with the debt agreement, had urged the Speaker to hold the line in demanding sharp spending cuts, even if it meant a government shutdown. When he chose instead to keep the government open at current spending levels, they pounced.
Led by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a small but willful group of conservatives forced votes on a motion to vacate the Speaker’s chair. On Oct. 3, eight Republicans joined every Democrat in removing McCarthy’s gavel — the first time a Speaker had ever been ousted.
It remains unclear what McCarthy will do next. But he’s vowing to continue his work fighting for Republican causes.
“I know my work is only getting started,” he said.