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Kevin McCarthy to retire weeks after being ousted as House speaker

Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy has announced his retirement from Congress after he was ousted from the top job in the House of Representatives just several weeks ago.

“I have decided to depart the House at the end of this year to serve America in new ways,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.

Beginning the piece by calling himself an “optimist” Mr McCarthy went on to note that he spent 17 years representing the same congressional seat where he once was “denied an internship”.

“Only in America,” he wrote. “I helped lead Republicans to a House majority—twice. We got more Republican women, veterans and minorities elected to Congress at one time than ever before. I remained cheerfully persistent when elected speaker because I knew what we could accomplish.”

On 3 October, Mr McCarthy became the only speaker in US history to be removed following the filing of a motion to vacate after he made a deal with Democrats to avoid a government shutdown, prompting the outrage of far-right members. The man who followed him in the job, former temporary speaker Patrick McHenry, has also announced his retirement.

The 58-year-old lasted only nine months as speaker after having struck a deal with far-right members of his party who initially refused to back his bid in January. It took 15 rounds of voting to get him the gavel, which hasn’t happened since the Civil War. The deal allowed a single member to bring a motion to remove Mr McCarthy, which Rep Matt Gaetz of Florida did just over two months ago.

Mr McCarthy, who once owned a deli in his hometown of Bakersfield north of Los Angeles, joined the California Assembly in December 2002, where he rose to become minority leader, before entering the US House in January 2007 following the 2006 midterms, a strong year for the Democrats in the middle of President George W Bush’s second term.

“It often seems that the more Washington does, the worse America gets. I started my career as a small-business owner, and I look forward to helping entrepreneurs and risk-takers reach their full potential. The challenges we face are more likely to be solved by innovation than legislation,” he wrote in the piece published on Wednesday.

Getting his first leadership position in early 2009 – chief deputy whip – under Speaker John Boehner, Mr McCarthy later served as majority whip, majority leader, and leader of the Republican conference, before taking the helm of the House GOP caucus as minority leader in 2019 after the Democrats took back the House in the 2018 midterms amid pushback against the presidency of Donald Trump.

“Even with slim margins in the House, we passed legislation to secure the border, achieve energy independence, reduce crime, hold government accountable and establish a Parents’ Bill of Rights. We did exactly what we said we would do,” he wrote in The Journal of his nine months as speaker. “No matter the odds, or personal cost, we did the right thing. That may seem out of fashion in Washington these days, but delivering results for the American people is still celebrated across the country.”

U.S. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (L) talks to Rep.-elect Matt Gaetz (R-FL) in the House Chamber after Gaetz voted present during the fourth day of voting for Speaker of the House in January (Getty Images)
U.S. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (L) talks to Rep.-elect Matt Gaetz (R-FL) in the House Chamber after Gaetz voted present during the fourth day of voting for Speaker of the House in January (Getty Images)

The chaotic process by which Mr McCarthy became speaker foreshadowed what was to come – his failure to keep together a hopelessly divided party with former President Donald Trump as its de facto leader. The constant infighting has prompted concerns about the GOP’s inability to govern, with many of its members seeing their only mission in Washington as grinding the government machinery to a halt as much as they can.

In January, the Democrats remained divided behind Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries throughout the 15 rounds of balloting, with Mr McCarthy finally prevailing by a margin of 216-212, with six GOP holdouts voting present. Mr McCarthy came out of the battle as the weakest speaker in modern memory, with many seeing him as a dead man walking from the beginning.

While Mr McCarthy grew famous for his fundraising and glad-handing prowess, it became clear that he was significantly less adept at dealing with the hard right of his caucus.

In a statement, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Mr McCarthy’s “neighbors in Bakersfield were fortunate to have such an optimistic doer represent them for 17 years. I am proud of the work we accomplished together in the Capitol, and I wish him the very best as he writes a new chapter”.

After the expected “red wave” failed to appear in the 2022 midterms, Republicans have been tearing themselves apart as they have struggled to govern on a slim majority, which now has become only smaller after the early resignation of Mr McCarthy and the expulsion of freshman New York GOP Rep George Santos.

Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right member and conspiracy theorist who became a McCarthy ally, said: “Now in 2024, we will have a 1 seat majority in the House of Representatives. Congratulations Freedom Caucus for one and 105 Rep who expel our own for the other. I can assure you Republican voters didn’t give us the majority to crash the ship. Hopefully no one dies.”

While the former speaker hailed from a deeply blue state, Mr McCarthy represented a right-leaning part of central California, an oil-producing area with a lot of farmland and a haven for country music.

Following his removal from the speakership in early October, Mr McCarthy was unclear about his future in Congress, but he later told the press that he was staying in the House and planned to run again. But it soon became clear that it was difficult for him to serve as a backbench member alongside some who had voted to remove him. The deadline for filing to run for his California seat is this Friday, 8 December.

When he was questioned about the chaos in his party throughout a myriad of crises, Mr McCarthy often quoted his father, a firefighter: “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”