Kevin McCarthy
US Republican Kevin McCarthy has described himself as an optimist, but he was ousted as speaker of the House of Representatives by a rebellious band of far-right lawmakers furious over his engagement with Democrats. AFP

Kevin McCarthy was axed Tuesday as speaker of the US House of Representatives in a brutal rebellion by the far-right of the Republican party furious at his cooperation with Democrats.

The unprecedented maneuver laid bare the chaotic levels of internecine squabbling in Republican ranks as they prepare for a 2024 presidential election effort led by Donald Trump. He is making history of his own as the first former or serving president subject to multiple criminal indictments and was in court in New York on Tuesday.

The first ouster of a speaker in the House's 234-year history was supported by only a handful of right-wing Republican hardliners. However, the House is almost evenly divided and with Democrats joining the rebel Republicans, rather than riding to McCarthy's rescue, he had no way to survive.

The 58-year-old Californian former entrepreneur had sparked fury among conservatives at the weekend when he passed a bipartisan stopgap funding measure backed by the White House to avert a government shutdown.

Florida conservative Matt Gaetz, who forced the removal vote, gambled that he could oust McCarthy with just a few Republicans, helped by Democrats loath to help a speaker who only recently opened a highly politicized impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden.

Republicans were warned by leadership about plunging the party "into chaos" but Gaetz, who has repeatedly complained about McCarthy failing to honor agreements made with the far right, retorted: "Chaos is Speaker McCarthy."

"Chaos is somebody who we cannot trust with their word," he added.

Democrats, too, had no love for McCarthy, pointing to his decision to renege on a deal with Biden on spending limits hammered out earlier this year in high-stakes talks over the federal budget.

The pro-business New Democrat Coalition, a large group of Democratic lawmakers, described McCarthy as "simply not trustworthy." And Congressional Progressive Caucus chairwoman Pramila Jayapal, a leading leftist, vowed to let Republicans "wallow in their pigsty of incompetence" rather than rescue McCarthy.

The tussle came two days after the House and Senate passed a measure to avert a costly government shutdown -- both with big bipartisan majorities -- by extending federal funding through mid-November.

Conservatives were furious, seeing their chances dashed for forcing massive budget cuts.

They accused McCarthy of a flip-flop, saying he'd promised an end to hastily prepared stopgap legislation, hammered out with the support of the opposition, and a return to budgeting through the committee process.

"I hate losing Kevin as a friend but I worry about our country, in all sincerity," said conservative Tennessee congressman Tim Burchett.

The writing was on the wall after Democratic House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries encouraged his members to oust McCarthy. Every Democrat then joined the 11 rebel Republicans to reject a preliminary motion which would have prevented the final ouster vote from taking place.

With McCarthy out, the House rules provide for a temporary speaker to put the House into recess until a permanent replacement is elected.

Republicans will gather to put up a candidate for a vote to be the new speaker -- and it is not out of the question that McCarthy could be nominated for a return to the role he just lost.

It took 15 rounds of balloting for the Californian to win the gavel in January, but the fight demonstrated that he has the support of most of the party, and he could try to persuade the rank-and-file to rally behind him once more.

Alternatively, he may bow out. This would set up a showdown among his lieutenants -- most likely House Majority Leader Steve Scalise and House Majority Whip Tom Emmer.

But Republican hopefuls may shy from taking on what looks like a poisoned chalice in which the hard-right faction will continue to exercise control from the sidelines.

Trump berated Republicans on his social media platform for "always fighting among themselves." Tellingly, though, he offered no support for McCarthy.