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How a group of 8 Republicans had enough power to get rid of Speaker McCarthy

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

It has been a week where the wheels in Washington seemed to be falling off. A small group of Republicans in the House of Representatives took the nation right to the edge of a government shutdown. And then that same group engineered the ouster of the Republican speaker of the House. It is the first time the House has ever voted out its speaker. How did we get here? We're joined now by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson to try to figure out how. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So help us out here. How did we get to a situation where a small group of just eight Republicans had enough power to remove Speaker Kevin McCarthy?

LIASSON: Yeah. It is pretty extraordinary. But they followed the rules that they created - rules that said just one member could trigger this motion to vacate, the vote to fire the speaker. This is a rule that McCarthy had to agree to because it was the only way he could get their votes in the first place to become speaker. And remember, McCarthy had a very, very slim majority. He could only afford to lose a handful of votes. These members, the hard-right members, were able to do this with impunity because they come from gerrymandered districts, ruby-red districts. They don't have any incentive to work across the aisle or to pay attention to swing voters. What they're only worried about at home is a primary challenge. So they're not - and they're not interested in funding the government. They think most of what government does is actually not very good.

SUMMERS: OK, walking through the politics of this a little bit here. House Democrats, they could have voted to retain McCarthy as speaker, in theory.

LIASSON: Yes. They could have.

SUMMERS: They did not do so.

LIASSON: But they didn't. He didn't offer them any concessions to do so. And he said he wasn't going to. Remember, McCarthy had already relied on Democratic votes to pass the government funding bill, and that was something that the extreme-right faction, led by Matt Gaetz, said would be the kiss of death. They said if he worked across the aisle and pass things with Democratic votes, they would put through a motion to vacate, which they did. For that group, bipartisanship, reaching across the aisle is worse than shutting down the government.

SUMMERS: Mara, President Biden said something yesterday about all of this I'd like to ask you about. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: More than anything, we need to change the poisonous atmosphere in Washington. You know, we have strong disagreements, but we need to stop seeing each other as enemies. We need to talk to one another, listen to one another, work with one another. And we can do that.

SUMMERS: OK. You and I have been doing this a long time. Is that even possible?

LIASSON: It doesn't seem like it's possible. Now, of course, what Biden might have been talking about is the extreme disagreements and poisonous atmosphere inside the Republican conference. But this is definitely a trend. We've seen politics become so toxic. It's more about personality than ideology. Biden comes from a time when people disagreed, then went out to lunch. And, of course, he passed a couple of big bipartisan bills. So he feels it's possible again. But a lot of the incentives and forces of modern life are against this. In the past, you became successful in the House and powerful if you had a big committee assignment. It was all about governing. Now it's more performative. You can be a backbencher and go on right-wing television a lot and become Matt Gaetz.

SUMMERS: OK, big picture here, what does this mean for the Republican-led House of Representatives and how it will function, or not function, going forward?

LIASSON: Well, that's a good question. Not only is this hard-right group of House Republicans not that interested in governing. They also may be ungovernable. Remember, this is the third speaker to leave after clashing with the right wing of his party. Boehner left. Ryan left - similar problems, not as bad as Kevin McCarthy's. And remember, a big - a majority of the current House Republicans voted to overturn an election that the independent judiciary, which is the referee in our system, declared free and fair. They were fine with defaulting on U.S. debt, and then they were OK with shutting down the government.

Remember, funding the government, originating spending bills is a constitutionally required responsibility of the House - couldn't get any more basic than that. It's unclear now if the hard-right group is going to demand the same kind of concessions from a new speaker. If they do, I don't think much will change. If they don't, and this was just...

SUMMERS: Yeah.

LIASSON: ...Personal between Gaetz and McCarthy, maybe we'll get a little less toxic atmosphere.

SUMMERS: In a sentence or two, how might this affect the politics of the upcoming presidential election?

LIASSON: We don't know yet. We don't know if it will help Biden make the argument that Republicans are the party of extremism and chaos.

SUMMERS: NPR's Mara Liasson. Nice to talk to you.

LIASSON: Nice to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mara Liasson
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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