Much like an athlete mentally preparing before a big game, Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR), an ally of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), was getting his head right and ridding himself of emotion as he walked onto the House floor to preside over what wound up being the first removal of a sitting speaker in the nation’s history.
“It was game time,” he said in an interview in his office.
In this Congress, Womack has been the one who leadership wants presiding over the House during important votes. He got experience under past Republican speakers as well: former Speaker John Boehner had him presiding when they voted on the fiscal cliff in 2013 and “doc fix” Medicare in 2015, and former Speaker Paul Ryan chose him to preside over the rules vote at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
All those things prepared him for what took place on Tuesday, he said.
When presiding over the chamber, it doesn’t matter what the vote is, what the issue at hand is, or what personal feelings one might have, Womack said. It’s solely about making the institution run as smoothly as possible.
“Protection of the integrity of the institution was my No. 1 goal,” Womack said. “Because you can be a hardcore, passionate, conservative Republican on the floor when you’re voting, but in that space of about four by eight, you are the presiding officer of the legislative body of the greatest country on the planet.”
Prior to the vote, Womack went and met with the parliamentarian, thinking that “we may make history here, and if we do, I want this thing to go without a hitch.”
He knew emotions would be high, there would be hard feelings, and the rhetoric would be harsh. So, he wanted to be sure everything was in order and that he knew exactly how the process would take place so he could be confident and in the right mindset to work through any “curveballs” people threw on the floor.
He locked in, focusing on the task at hand. He didn’t let any emotions take over him to ensure things ran smoothly and the integrity of the House was not lost.
“I was so keyed up to perform — when I say perform, [I mean] act as a presiding officer of U.S. House should act,” Womack said. “I was so committed to that and so determined for it to be properly right and professional that it didn’t really hit me what we were doing until we had done it.”
After the vote was over and the acting clerk of the House had read each member’s name to tally their vote, Womack read the resolution that ousted a speaker for the first time in U.S. history.
“On this vote, the yays are 216, the nays are 210. The resolution is adopted,” he read. “The office of speaker of the House of the United States House of Representatives is hereby declared vacant.”
And he dropped the gavel.
Audible gasps could be heard across the chamber as McCarthy sat there at the leadership table surrounded by two of his top staffers. Before leaving the floor, Womack approached McCarthy and offered him words of encouragement.
“Under those circumstances, it was emotional,” he said. “And I just wanted to say a nice word to him.”
Womack said he didn’t sleep well Tuesday night as it started to sink in what had just happened. Still, even one day later, it hasn’t fully sunk in.
“None of that has really completely sunk in, and you know, we all come up here to do the work of our country and to represent our districts. But not one of us comes up here expecting to be part of a significant historical moment. So it’ll take a while,” he said. “I’m sad. I’m heartbroken. The country is suffering right now.”
Womack said the way he controls the House while presiding is modeled after Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID), whom he calls his “mentor for the chair.” When he got to Congress, he watched Simpson and said he admired how he had full control of the body, was never caught off guard, and was ready for everything.
After the vote on Tuesday, Womack sat next to Simpson in a meeting, looked over at him, and told him, “Good job on the floor today.”
Simpson just grinned, knowing what he meant.
This is the second notable moment Womack has experienced as a presiding officer within the past week.
Just days before the motion to vacate vote, on Saturday, he had presided over the House when they passed its clean continuing resolution. After a motion to adjourn was made, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who brought the motion to vacate against McCarthy, tried to get Womack’s attention to speak at the mic, but he wouldn’t get the chance.
“I have a rule that I tried to abide by that I violated that day,” he said. “That rule is when you’re closing the vote, don’t look up.”
As the motion to adjourn was being made, Womack saw Gaetz walking toward the lectern. While he didn’t know what he was going to do, he wanted to send him a message. As he was gaveling out, he stared directly at Gaetz and dropped the gavel without recognizing the Florida Republican.
“I looked up because it was important for him to see me, and it was important for me to see him and then drop the gavel,” Womack said.