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Former speaker Kevin McCarthy will retire from Congress at end of year

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who was ousted as the 55th House speaker in October after a revolt by hard-right members, will not seek reelection to his congressional seat and will retire at the end of the month, he announced Wednesday.

“I have decided to depart the House at the end of this year to serve America in new ways,” McCarthy said in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. “I know my work is only getting started.”

McCarthy’s retirement will end a 17-year House career in which he rose quickly through the ranks of Republican leadership by using his affable nature to maintain relationships and keep obstructionists close, culminating with a nine-month stint as speaker. His ouster marked the first time in history that the House voted to remove its leader, a move that threw the chamber into a period of instability.

McCarthy’s term was set to end in January 2025. He represents California’s 20th District, which covers much of the state’s Central Valley. A departure before the end of his term means that, in the next two weeks, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) will call a special election to fill McCarthy’s seat. Based on California law, that vote is unlikely to be held until summer.

Until the special election, McCarthy’s absence will further narrow a fractious Republican majority in the House. When the House returns in January, Republicans can lose only two votes from their ranks to pass any legislation at a time when the chamber faces major decisions on government spending and foreign aid. That dynamic could force Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), who assumed the post after a tumultuous three weeks following McCarthy’s ouster, to work with Democrats to avert a partial government shutdown as soon as mid-January.

“Kevin served the American people and his constituents in California’s Central Valley with honor for nearly two decades,” Johnson wrote on X, formerly Twitter, noting McCarthy’s work to help Republicans twice take the House majority. Johnson said McCarthy “served faithfully and sacrificed substantially for the good of our country and our cause.”

McCarthy announced his decision ahead of a Friday filing deadline in California to run for reelection. Though McCarthy initially denied reports that he would retire in the weeks after his ouster, he ultimately suggested he was weighing the decision as rumors swirled among Republican lawmakers that he was heading for the exit.

“If I decide to run again, I have to know in my heart I’m giving 110 percent. I have to know that I want to do that. I also have to know if I’m going to walk away, that I’m going to be fine walking away,” McCarthy said at a New York Times event last week. “It’s a gut call.”

McCarthy will join the more than three dozen House members who have announced they will not seek reelection in 2024, because they are either retiring or seeking other office. In a video shared on X after publication of his Journal op-ed, McCarthy did not outline his next steps, though he said it was “time to pursue my passion in a new arena.”

His announcement also comes one day after his closest ally, Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), declared he was retiring after serving a full term as Financial Services Committee chairman and temporarily as the speaker pro-tempore, a post for which McCarthy tapped him in the event of his ouster.

McCarthy’s departure marks the end of a generation known informally as the “Young Guns,” which pledged to usher in a “new generation of conservative leaders.” Over the past decade, Speakers McCarthy and Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), were all pushed out by the far-right flank, which viewed them as establishment figures who did not reflect the Republican base, particularly once Donald Trump became president.

Instead of leaving Congress alongside the other two, McCarthy stretched his time in Congress by transforming himself to appeal to the party’s most conservative elements, and by largely remaining loyal to Trump.

Despite initial criticism of Trump after the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol, McCarthy quickly embraced Trump’s election falsehoods, struck down efforts to investigate Trump’s actions on Jan. 6, and supported the removal of a once-loyal deputy, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), from GOP leadership after she voted to impeach Trump. He also unilaterally launched an impeachment inquiry into President Biden to appease the far-right flank ahead of the negotiations on spending that ultimately led to his ouster.

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Unlike previous Republican speakers, McCarthy learned to embrace the House Freedom Caucus, allowing the hard-right flank a seat at the table when he became the GOP minority leader in 2019 because their support was crucial to his goal of becoming speaker whenever Republicans regained the majority.

Known as a campaign tactician with unmatched fundraising prowess, McCarthy played a critical role in ushering Republicans into the majority in the 2022 midterms. He ultimately recruited more diverse candidates to run in districts with high minority populations and pulled the levers against far-right MAGA candidates in primaries in hopes of not just building a large majority, but one focused on governing.

McCarthy made history at several points over the past 11 months. He became the first speaker in 100 years who did not secure the speakership in the first vote, taking 14 additional rounds over four days to do so. To end the stalemate, McCarthy made the fateful decision to lower the threshold needed to call for the ouster of a speaker to one lawmaker and made myriad promises on spending to appease enough members of the far-right flank.

Though Republicans’ five-seat majority often tested what the ideologically divisive conference could accomplish, McCarthy brought the five factions in the conference together to oversee passage of several partisan items on their agenda: a border security bill; a parental rights bill related to education; an energy package; a bill barring transgender athletes in women’s sports; and a partisan proposal to raise the debt ceiling.

Deciding to work with Democrats to avert an economic collapse by raising the debt ceiling and later preventing a government shutdown at the 11th hour, McCarthy was ousted after Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) — a constant thorn in McCarthy’s side — triggered the “motion to vacate” against him, starting the process that led to his eventual ouster. McCarthy became the first speaker ever to be removed from the role, throwing the House into a three-week standstill until Republicans unanimously elected Johnson to assume the speakership.

After McCarthy’s announcement Wednesday, Gaetz simply said, “I wish him well.”

Unlike McCarthy, Johnson, who is part of the far-right flank, has not spent his entire career seeking the speakership and has spent little time building relationships across the conference. His lack of close ties has contributed to some Republicans going rogue on votes — particularly vulnerable incumbents, who had fealty to McCarthy for bringing them into the majority and would often take tough votes for the sake of projecting party unity.

Yet Johnson’s honesty when dealing with members over the past month has garnered him goodwill, especially among those on the far right. Those lawmakers have not considered moving to oust him, even though Johnson averted a second government shutdown by doing exactly what McCarthy had done a month earlier: superseding the far-right’s spending concerns and working with Democrats.

Some McCarthy loyalists on Wednesday expressed disappointment over their former leader’s retirement, with some blaming the eight Republicans who voted to oust him in October. In a post on X, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) warned that if House Republicans lose the majority — including as soon as next year given Republicans’ three-seat majority — it would be the fault of those eight.

“I can assure you Republican voters didn’t give us the majority to crash the ship,” Greene said, adding: “Hopefully no one dies.”

McCarthy has been bluntly criticizing many of the eight who ousted him in recent weeks, including being accused of elbowing one out of his way in a Capitol Hill hallway last month. In his op-ed, McCarthy noted he would “continue to recruit our country’s best and brightest to run for elected office,” which some Republicans privately have taken to mean that he would use his electoral connections to find primary challenges for the eight members.

McCarthy’s years in leadership led him to form working relationships across the Capitol, including with Democrats. Upon becoming speaker, McCarthy made a point to keep Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) involved in big decisions because, when McCarthy was minority leader, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did not engage with him in that way.

“Kevin faced challenging circumstances as speaker. When possible, I did what I could to help him navigate them so that the House could function in a bipartisan manner,” said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), who maintained a relationship with McCarthy when Hoyer served as the Democrats’ majority leader. “Although Kevin did not always agree with my advice, I appreciated his willingness to hear my perspective. We had our disagreements, but in many instances when the stakes were high for our nation, Kevin did what was right for the country.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), in a post shared on X, said he was proud of the work he and McCarthy did together and wished McCarthy “the very best as he writes a new chapter.”

In a video shared on X after publication of his Journal op-ed, McCarthy said he was proud of “what we have accomplished” during his 17 years in Congress.

“We won the House majority twice. We elected more Republican women, veterans and minorities to Congress than ever before,” he said. “We reduced the deficit by over $2 trillion, while protecting the full faith and credit of our nation. We kept our government operating and our troops paid while wars broke out around the world.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post
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