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Kevin McCarthy to retire from Congress at end of the year after historic ouster as House speaker

Kevin McCarthy announces retirement
Kevin McCarthy announces retirement after historic ouster as House speaker 06:20

Washington —  Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is resigning from Congress at the end of the month, he announced Wednesday, ending weeks of speculation about his future after he was ousted from his leadership role in October.

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

McCarthy's departure makes him the latest member to retire amid growing polarization that has made it difficult for Congress to operate. His decision comes a day after Rep. Patrick McHenry, who briefly served as temporary speaker following McCarthy's ouster, also announced he would leave Congress.

Without McCarthy, the Republicans' slim majority — already weakened after Rep. George Santos was expelled from Congress — will shrink yet again, with Republicans holding 220 seats to Democrats' 213. A special election has been set for Santos' seat for Feb. 13, with the district considered a toss-up by the Cook Political Report

"Hopefully no one dies," Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene said about the party's majority after McCarthy announced his retirement. 

McCarthy represents California's 20th District in the central part of the state, stretching from the San Joaquin Valley and the southern tip of the Sierra Nevadas to the Mojave Desert. It's a reliably red district that includes his hometown of Bakersfield. 

McCarthy recently indicated that he's been going through stages of grief since his ouster and did not want to make a rash decision about his future. 

Rep. Kevin McCarthy speaks during the New York Times annual DealBook summit on Nov. 29, 2023, in New York.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy speaks during the New York Times annual DealBook summit on Nov. 29, 2023, in New York.  Michael M Santiago/Getty Images / Getty Images

"If I decide to run again, I have to know in my heart I'm giving 110%. I have to know that I want to do that," McCarthy said recently at the New York Times' DealBook Summit. "I also have to know if I'm going to walk away, that I'm going to be fine with walking away." 

"If you just got thrown out of speaker, you'd go through different stages, would you not?" he added. "I want to know that it's the right thing to do. And then if I'm walking away from something that I spent two decades at, I don't want to look back and say I made an emotional decision."

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre congratulated McCarthy on his long career in Congress. 

"The president wishes Speaker McCarthy well, and congratulates him on a career of service. While they have important differences about policy, the president appreciates that they were able to work across the aisle," Jean-Pierre said. 

McCarthy's tumultuous speakership

McCarthy, who was elected to Congress in 2006, held the top post for nine months before a deal he made to secure the speakership led to his downfall. His fight to win the gavel when Republicans took control of the House in January included 15 rounds of votes, and foreshadowed the limits of his power over a fractured party.

To win the support of far-right Republican holdouts, he agreed to a rule allowing a single member to trigger a no-confidence vote to remove the speaker. That came back to haunt him when fellow Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida introduced a resolution to do just that after McCarthy relied heavily on the votes of House Democrats to temporarily avert a government shutdown in September. Eight Republicans voted with all Democrats to remove McCarthy, making it the first time in U.S. history a House speaker was ousted by such a motion. 

His successor, House Speaker Mike Johnson, has made similar decisions since taking over, including relying on Democrats to avert a shutdown in November, but has so far avoided McCarthy's fate.

"I wish him well," Gaetz said of McCarthy's retirement. When asked if he was responsible for driving McCarthy out, Gaetz said, "I didn't force him to resign. He made the decision."

McCarthy has not hidden his disdain for the Republicans who voted for his removal, telling CNN last month that Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina did not deserve to be reelected, and the Republican Party would benefit "tremendously" if Gaetz was not in Congress. He also questioned the motives of Rep. Tim Burchett of Tennessee. 

"They care a lot about press, not about policy, and so they seem to just want the press and the personality," McCarthy told CNN. 

Burchett later accused McCarthy of elbowing him in the back in a Capitol Hill hallway in retaliation for the vote, which McCarthy denied. 

"If I were to hit somebody, they would know I hit them," McCarthy said. 

On Wednesday, Johnson praised McCarthy for helping Republicans secure the majority and lifting restrictions that had been implemented in Congress during the COVID-19 pandemic. He wished McCarthy the best, saying he "served faithfully and sacrificed substantially for the good of our country and our cause." 

"It's like losing Michael Jordan," Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma said. 

Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana said Wednesday that McCarthy's leadership would "be missed around here." McCarthy did not give him a heads up about the announcement, he said. 

"I would have liked him to stay. But it's kind of hard to ask somebody to stay after they're weighing some longer-term decisions," Scalise said. "He was going to have some really good options in the next phases of his life." 

Nikole Killion, Scott MacFarlane and Alejandro Alvarez contributed reporting. 

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