The narrow outcome forced by McCarthy’s chief rival, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, brought together a handful of conservative Republican critics of the speaker and many Democrats who said he was unworthy of leadership.
The vote was 208-218 not to table the motion, with 11 Republicans allowing it to advance.
By refusing to set aside the motion, the House now opens an extraordinary floor debate ahead of the next round of voting.
It’s a stunning moment for the embattled McCarthy that serves as the most severe challenge yet, a potential punishment sparked by his weekend decision to work with Democrats to keep the federal government open rather than risk a shutdown.
McCarthy, of California, insists he will not cut a deal with Democrats to remain in power. Gaetz rose to offer his motion, as several hard-right Republicans had already announced they were ready to oppose McCarthy, many of them who fought in January during his prolonged battle to gain the gavel.
“It's a sad day,” said Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, as debate got underway, urging his colleagues not to plunge the House Republican majority "into chaos."
But Gaetz shot back during the debate: "Chaos is Speaker McCarthy."
The Republican McCarthy's fate is deeply uncertain as he faces what's known as a “motion to vacate” from Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, a strident critic allied with Donald Trump.
It would take the support of only a handful of Republicans from his slim majority to remove McCarthy as speaker if Democrats vote in favor alongside the conservative rebels.
Behind closed doors early Tuesday, McCarthy told fellow Republicans: Let’s get on with it.
“If I counted how many times someone wanted to knock me out, I would have been gone a long time ago,” McCarthy said at the Capitol after a private morning meeting.
At the Capitol, both Republicans and Democrats met privately behind closed doors ahead of what would be a historic afternoon vote.
The Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries said in a letter to colleagues that he wanted to work with Republicans, but he was unwilling to provide the votes needed to save McCarthy.
“It is now the responsibility of the GOP members to end the House Republican Civil War,” Jeffries said, announcing the Democratic leadership would vote for the motion to oust the speaker.
McCarthy insisted he had not reached across the aisle to the Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries for help with votes to stay in the job, nor had they demanded anything in return. Democrats "haven't asked for anything,” McCarthy said on CNBC before the meeting. “I’m not going to provide anything.”
During the hour-long meeting in the Capitol basement, McCarthy invoked Republican speaker Joseph Cannon, who more than 100 years ago confronted his critics head on by calling their bluff and setting the vote himself on his ouster. Cannon survived that take-down attempt which, until now, was the first time the House had actually voted to consider removing its speaker.
McCarthy received three standing ovations during the private meeting, one when he came to the microphone to speak, again during his remarks and lastly when he was done, according a Republican at the meeting and granted anonymity to discuss it.
At one point, there was a show of hands in support of McCarthy and it was “overwhelming,” said Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., a member of the House Freedom Caucus.
Gaetz was in attendance, but he did not address the room.
On the other side of the Capitol, Democrats lined up for a long discussion and unified around one common point: McCarthy cannot be trusted, several lawmakers in the room said.
“I think it’s safe to say there’s not a lot of good will in that room for Kevin McCarthy,” said Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass. Still, the Democrats are holding their strategy close, leaving to Jeffries and his team to decide the move ahead as floor voting is set to begin.
Jeffries said afterward that Democrats are willing to work with Republicans but he urged those on the other side of the aisle to — “End the chaos, end the dysfunction, end the extremism.”
“At the end of the day, the country needs a speaker that can be relied upon,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Ca. "We don’t trust him. Their members don’t trust him. And you need a certain degree of trust to be the speaker.”
Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Ill., said “McCarthy got himself in this mess. It’s up to McCarthy to get himself out.”
“We are always the adults in the room,” said Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger. “McCarthy said he doesn’t need our help,” she said. “He has made his bed.”
The vote ahead will likely involve a motion to table the Gaetz proposal, which means that lawmakers would be voting to set it aside for now.
McCarthy appeared confident he would win this round, but acknowledged it may not be the last word. Gaetz has indicated he is not done fighting the speaker, and could try again as many times as he likes.
One key McCarthy ally, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., has taken to social media urging support for “our speaker” and an end to the chaos that has roiled the Republican majority.
The snap vote this week comes as Republicans are trying to make progress on a key demand from Gaetz and others, which is to move ahead with the 12 annual spending bills and prevent another stopgap measure like the one Congress approved last weekend hours before the government shutdown deadline.
Republicans are upset that McCarthy relied on Democratic votes Saturday to approve the temporary measure to keep the government running until Nov. 17. Some would have preferred a government shutdown as they fight for deeper spending cuts.
But Democrats are also upset at McCarthy for walking away from the debt deal that he made with President Joe Biden earlier this year that already set federal spending levels as he emboldens his right-flank to push for steep spending reductions.