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Chaos in Congress: Rep. Ro Khanna on Historic Ouster of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy

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Democrats united Tuesday to join a revolt by far-right Republicans to oust House Speaker Kevin McCarthy after just nine months on the job. No other speaker in U.S. history has ever been voted out, and the unprecedented development has thrown the House into deeper chaos and ground legislation to a halt. Republican Patrick McHenry of North Carolina has taken up the speaker’s gavel temporarily, but who can unite the party’s fractious caucus remains a mystery. “Congress is at a halt, at a standstill,” says Congressmember Ro Khanna, who blames far-right Republicans for being more focused on theatrics than on governing. “There is no effort to actually address the economic issues, the kitchen-table issues that affect the American public.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Kevin McCarthy has become the first House speaker in U.S. history to be ousted, after eight hard-line Republicans led an effort to remove him from his post, leaving Congress in a state of chaos. The entire Democratic Caucus voted to remove McCarthy.

REP. STEVE WOMACK: On this vote, the yeas are 216, the nays are 210. The resolution is adopted. Without objection, the motion to reconsider is laid on the table. The office of speaker of the House of the United States House of Representatives is hereby declared vacant.

AMY GOODMAN: The vote came just days after Kevin McCarthy worked with Democrats to pass a stopgap bill to avert a government shutdown, for now. McCarthy spoke after his ouster.

REP. KEVIN McCARTHY: Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but it is necessary. I don’t regret standing up for choosing governing over grievance. It is my responsibility. It is my job. I do not regret negotiating. Our government is designed to find compromise. I don’t regret my efforts to build coalitions and find solutions. I was raised to solve problems, not create them. So I may have lost a vote today, but as I walk out of this chamber, I feel fortunate to have served the American people.

AMY GOODMAN: Kevin McCarthy has accused Florida’s far-right Congressmember Matt Gaetz, who set the vote in motion, of a personally motivated attack. The House Ethics Committee has been investigating Gaetz for a range of possible crimes, including sex trafficking and misuse of campaign funds. Prior to the vote, Gaetz spoke out against McCarthy’s leadership.

REP. MATT GAETZ: Mr. Speaker, my friend from Oklahoma says that my colleagues and I who don’t support Kevin McCarthy would plunge the House and the country into chaos. Chaos is Speaker McCarthy. Chaos is somebody who we cannot trust with their word. The one thing that the White House, House Democrats and many of us on the conservative side of the Republican Caucus would argue is that the thing we have in common, Kevin McCarthy said something to all of us at one point or another that he didn’t really mean and never intended to live up to.

AMY GOODMAN: The House will now have to vote for a new leader, with no clear successor in sight, as Congress has just over six weeks to again avoid a shutdown. North Carolina Republican Congressman Patrick McHenry will serve as acting speaker until a new one is elected. McCarthy says he will not run again. The House will be in recess until next week.

We go now to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by California Congressmember Ro Khanna. He joined every other Democrat in the House Tuesday to vote to remove Kevin McCarthy as speaker.

This is historic, Congressmember Ro Khanna, the first time in U.S. history a House speaker has been removed. Can you talk about the decision of the Democrats to join with the eight far-right Republicans in removing Kevin McCarthy?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, Amy, Kevin McCarthy’s tragic fall reminds me of the Scripture, “Pride cometh before the fall.” Kevin McCarthy, few days before the motion, tweets out, “Bring it on.” He never outreached to the Democrats. He never tried to stand up to the far-right faction since the day he took office. He could have had a very different speakership. He could have stood up to the far right. He could have not held the country hostage in the debt ceiling negotiations. He could have condemned what happened on January 6, to not walk that back. But instead, he basically kowtowed to this extreme wing on their side. And he only realized the danger of that a few days ago. And even then, he still was attacking Democrats on the Sunday shows. So, it’s unfortunate. It’s an unfortunate situation for the House, but the Democrats really did not have someone who we could co-govern with.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Congressman, there was talk in the past few days of some kind of a possible deal between the Democrats and McCarthy to keep him in office, if concessions could have been gotten from him in terms of future governing. Did any of those discussions ever really go anywhere? And were the Democrats completely united in sticking with the vote against him?

REP. RO KHANNA: I have never seen, Juan, our Democratic Caucus more united. Yesterday morning in the caucus meeting, about 50 members spoke. They all spoke about — in unison, about the need to support the motion to vacate. But at the same time, we had given our leader, Hakeem Jeffries, the authority to explore any negotiation. Kevin McCarthy himself is saying that he didn’t want to do that. He was not willing to talk about ending the bogus impeachment inquiry. He was not willing to talk about a path so that we don’t continually put this government on the threat of shutdown. And so, he wasn’t ever serious about that possibility. And I’m proud of my colleagues for standing united, both in the vote and in our internal conversations.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So what happens now? The Congress is recessed for a week. How long do you figure this will take to be able to — for the Republicans to arrive at a new leader? And what’s the impact going to be on any legislation coming out of Congress?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, Congress is at a halt, at a standstill. The irony is, for Representative Gaetz saying that we don’t work enough, that we aren’t coming in enough, now they have basically adjourned Congress until next week. And we have important bills to take up in the next 45 days so that we don’t have a situation of a shutdown right before Thanksgiving.

My sense is that the Republicans are still trying to figure out their leadership issue. And I do think they’ll probably coalesce around someone early next week. But the question is not so much who it is, whether it is Representative Scalise or whether it is Comer or whether it is Jordan. The issue is: Are they going to be able to govern? Will the Republicans allow them to pass another continuing resolution before Thanksgiving if we can’t get a total budget deal, or are we going to be in the same situation, where a speaker is threatened to have them removed unless they shut down government? And that’s really — it’s a structural problem for that caucus.

AMY GOODMAN: In a press conference on Tuesday evening, the ousted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy blamed the Democrats for his removal.

REP. KEVIN McCARTHY: I think today was a political decision by the Democrats. And I think the — I think the things they have done in the past hurt the institution, when they just started removing people from committee, when they just started doing the other things. And my fear is the institution fell today, because you can’t do the job if eight people — you have 94% or 96% of your entire conference, but eight people can partner with the whole other side. How do you govern?

AMY GOODMAN: So, even though it was the eight far-right Republicans, he’s talking about the Democrats. And also, a side issue is Nancy Pelosi was told to get her stuff out of — you could explain what the secret office is, near the chamber, as she is in California right now preparing for her close friend Dianne Feinstein’s funeral on Thursday.

REP. RO KHANNA: The pettiness of what they’re doing with Speaker Pelosi should offend every American. It is customary for former speaker of the House — for the former speaker of the House to have an office in the Capitol. Kevin McCarthy would be entitled to have an office in the Capitol. And the fact that the first act of the speaker pro tem is to kick Speaker Pelosi out of the Capitol is not just vindictive, but it also shows that they aren’t focused on average Americans’ priorities. I mean, what most Americans are worried about is that the gas bill is too much, the groceries cost too much, the rent costs too much, their income isn’t keeping up, they can’t afford to buy a house, interest rates are high. And there is no effort to actually address the economic issues, the kitchen-table issues that affect the American public.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you something about the possible House speakers to be. There’s the mention of Steve Scalise, who is going through, I think, chemo for blood cancer; Jim Jordan, head of the House Judiciary Committee, who was involved in that scandal at Ohio State, where he was an assistant coach and the doctor abused many of the young wrestlers, and he’s been accused of knowing full well and covering up. And then there’s the possibility of Hakeem Jeffries. If five Republicans join Democrats, it could be a Democratic House speaker. Can you comment on all of this?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, really, the ideal would it — for it to be Hakeem Jeffries. I mean, I wish there were five moderate, reasonable Republicans, people like Brian Fitzpatrick or others, who would say that, “Let’s coalesce around Hakeem Jeffries and actually govern this country.” I think it’s unlikely, but that would be the most reasonable outcome.

If Scalise gets it, I mean, on a personal level, I know him. It felt horrible during the Capitol shooting for what happened to him. I, of course, have deep sympathy and wish him well on the personal health challenges. My question for him would be: Have you gotten a commitment from the eight people who just brought down Kevin McCarthy that they aren’t going to try to bring you down, if you’re willing to govern? Or have you gotten a commitment that you don’t have to shut the government down or have the country go into default? Otherwise, I don’t care who they pick. It’s an insolvable issue if these few far-right-wing congresspeople basically don’t want to fund the government or want to cut the government spending so drastically for people who need Social Security, Medicare, nutritional assistance. And that’s really the challenge, Amy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Congressman, about that group of far-right Republicans, the leader, Matt Gaetz, as a result of this — he led the charge against McCarthy — do you sense that his influence and power within the Republican Caucus has increased or that he’s more been exposed for the extremism that he represents?

REP. RO KHANNA: He certainly has influence in the Republican Party, because he has a group of folks that he influences in a very narrow majority. His attack also on the Capitol, that it is being infused with lobbyist money, that it has people who have been there too long, that it isn’t looking out for the ordinary Americans, is a very potent rhetorical statement. And we should be pushing for reform. My view is the way to push for reform is to ban PAC and lobbyist money, ban stock trading, make sure that members of Congress can’t become lobbyists. It’s not to do the theatrics of removing Kevin McCarthy. But we should not underestimate the populist anger against the institution of Congress. And that’s what Matt Gaetz is tapping into.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about Ukraine funding, the Republicans not wanting to continue to fund the war in Ukraine? But also talk about pushes for diplomacy, whether that obscures another issue, which is trying to end the war through diplomacy. The Biden administration right now is deeply concerned about what has taken place, of course, as is Zelensky, the president of Ukraine.

REP. RO KHANNA: Amy, as you know, I was one of the people on the congressional progressive letter who didn’t retract, saying that while we support Ukraine with aid, we need to be having conversations with Ukraine, with Russia about what a just end to the conflict would look like, and we need to be involving people, other countries, like France, India, who may have a relationship to help facilitate a just end. But I have spoken even to peace activists, and they don’t believe that cutting off the aid at this point would do anything but allow Putin to march into Kyiv. It would be disastrous. We need to provide the aid to make sure that Ukraine can defend its sovereignty, that we aren’t handing Ukraine over to Russia, that we’re incentivizing Russia to come to the negotiating table, and at the same time, through another track, pursue a just diplomatic outcome. The removal of aid, regardless of where you stand on how much to push for diplomacy, would just be a colossal foreign policy blunder and basically be telling Putin, “Take Ukraine,” and make the last year and a half an effort in vain.

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