(Bloomberg) -- Republican Kevin McCarthy lost a pivotal test vote Tuesday, demonstrating hardline conservatives have the power to soon end his tumultuous 10 months as House speaker.
His political survival now hinges on whether he can build a last-minute alliance by offering hefty concessions to Democrats, who have refused to help him, or strike a deal with his conservative critics.
The 58-year-old veteran California politician, who navigated treacherous political cross-currents to avert a US debt default earlier this year and an Oct. 1 government shutdown, is now in danger of becoming the first US House speaker removed from his job.
The House Tuesday voted 218 to 208 to defeat a procedural maneuver by McCarthy and his allies to block a resolution introduced by conservative firebrand Matt Gaetz of Florida to oust the speaker. Eleven Republicans abandoned him.
A final vote on removing McCarthy could come within two days, unless McCarthy resigns first.
The prospects of his ouster injects further disarray in Washington. Moody’s Investors Service, the only remaining major credit grader to give the US a top rating, warned in late September its confidence in the US is wavering because of concerns about “governance.”
There’s no obvious successor to unify the fractious party, a vacuum that comes as the US approaches a Nov. 17 deadline to keep the government open. A disruptive shutdown would send cascading effects across the US economy.
US aid to Ukraine, which has become a source of vitriol for GOP hardliners and was dropped from the short-term spending deal, hangs in the balance. So, too, do contentious battles over immigration and asylum policy, abortion rights and support for the poor.
A determined political survivor, McCarthy still has a chance to stay in the post if he can make a deal with either opposition Democrats or some of the Republican dissidents.
Either option would be a formidable challenge.
House Democrats vented grievances against McCarthy in a closed-door party meeting Tuesday morning and emerged in no mood to bail him out. McCarthy, for his part, vowed publicly not to share power with the opposition party to gain their support.
“House Democrats remain willing to find common ground on an enlightened path forward,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said in a letter to Democrats minutes before the vote. “Unfortunately, our extreme Republican colleagues have shown no willingness to do the same.”
Republican ultra-conservatives only conceded to McCarthy’s initial election as speaker in January after blocking him until the 15th round of voting.
Tensions between the speaker and hardliners escalated after he agreed to a bipartisan deal to raise the debt limit and prevent a US default. Gaetz cited as the final straw McCarthy’s decision to allow a vote Saturday on a last-minute bipartisan temporary funding plan that stopped an Oct. 1 government shutdown.
The last time the House even voted on removing a speaker was in 1910. In that case, then-Speaker Joseph Cannon survived the test.
--With assistance from Laura Litvan.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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