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McCarthy limps towards possible exit from Congress after year of bruising speakership

Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was third in line to the presidency just a few months ago. Soon, he may not be in Washington at all.

The California congressman endured a grinding nine months as leader of a fractured and bitter Republican caucus, one that may have been destined to cast him aside from the very beginning. Following a last-minute deal with Democrats to avert a government shutdown in October, he was unceremoniously ousted by one of his most polarising foes: Matt Gaetz of Florida, leading a cadre of Republican malcontents with their own varying complaints about Mr McCarthy’s leadership.

It was no secret within Washington DC circles that Mr McCarthy, 58, had long pined for the speaker’s chair. He had assumed the role of Republican foil to Nancy Pelosi years ago, and was hoping to begin his term this year at the helm of a reinvigorated Republican majority propelled into office by a “red wave” in November of 2022.

The red wave never materialised. Instead, Republicans eked out only a single-digit majority, unable to capitalise on growing concerns about Joe Biden’s performance and age and dragged down by a politically-toxic ruling by the Supreme Court tossing out the legal precedent set by Roe vs Wade. In the Senate, the party fared even worse; Democrats expanded their control of the chamber by one vote, prohibiting most legislation that leaves the House from ever reaching the president’s desk.

Mr McCarthy assumed control in the midst of all of this. Support from moderates in his party was hamstrung by his party’s aforementioned electoral troubles, and conservatives were eager to exact meaningful concessions from the new speaker — including a lowered motion to vacate threshold which eventually was the cause of his demise. Just one member could trigger a vote to remove the speaker from their job.

Just a few short months later, he was out. Republican rightwingers cited a lack of trust in his leadership, unmoved by his ploys for their support including an impeachment inquiry into Joe Biden launched without a full House vote.

Now, reports indicate that the onetime GOP standard-bearer is more uncertain than ever about his future in Washington.

This past Wednesday, he addressed his future with remarks that exemplified that uncertainty during an interview following an appearance at the New York Times DealBook summit in New York. And he confirmed directly that he was considering leaving Congress altogether.

“I just went through losing, so you go through different stages,” said the former speaker, according to the Times. “I have to know that when I go, that there’s a place for me, and what am I going to do, and is that best?”

“I have to know that if I decided that wasn’t for me and I leave, I don’t want a year from now to think ‘Aw, I regret — I shouldn’t have left,’” he continued. “So if I take a little longer than most people normally, that’s just what I’m going through.”

Mr McCarthy’s own comments during the effort to oust him indicated that the successful vote to fire him caught him by surprise. His actions and those of his allies in the weeks following the vote (and the subsequent eruption of turmoil in the House) reinforced that idea, and suggested a personal animus towards those who ended his career. Democrats who had supported the vote saw themselves expelled from hideaways within the main Capitol building by a key McCarthy ally, while Mr McCarthy himself been unrestrained in his public criticism of Republicans like Mr Gaetz, Nancy Mace and Tim Burchett who were behind his removal.

In one wilder incident, an NPR congressional correspondent witnessed a confrontation between Mr Burchett and the former speaker in the halls of Capitol Hill after the former speaker physically collided with his colleague from Tennessee during the latter’s interview. Mr Burchett maintains that Mr McCarthy deliberately elbowed him in the back; Mr McCarthy denies this.

In October shortly following his removal from the speakership, he stressed to reporters that he would not resign and intended to run for reelection.

“I’m not resigning. I got a lot more work to do.”