The gauntlet has been thrown down: U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., filed a rarely used motion that, if approved by his fellow House members, would oust Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in the middle of the 118th Congress.
The move, formally known as a “motion to vacate the chair,” seeks to call a new vote for speaker that McCarthy, with a narrow Republican majority, could have trouble winning. Gaetz’s Oct. 2 move comes amid dissatisfaction with McCarthy among some of the House Republican Conference’s most conservative lawmakers.
Critics say McCarthy has worked too closely with the House’s Democratic minority, most recently in the battle over a possible federal government shutdown. That battle ended Sept. 30 with an agreement to extend funding through Nov. 17, allowing negotiators to cobble together a new, yearlong funding bill.
Here’s what may lie ahead.
How unusual is this situation?
Historically, motions to vacate the chair have been rare, and no speaker has ever been ousted by one.
Such a motion was last filed in 2015, when then-Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., moved against then-Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. It never got a vote, though it likely factored in Boehner’s departure from the speakership weeks later.
The last such motion to be voted upon was more than a century ago, when then-Speaker Joseph Cannon, R-Ill., called a vote as a dare to his opponents and survived it.
The difficulty of bringing a motion to vacate the chair has waxed and waned in recent years. Under former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Democrats made the process harder, blocking such motions unless “by direction of a party caucus or conference,” presumably meaning the party leadership. A speaker representing the majority likely wouldn’t allow such a vote. A minority leader could try it, but probably would lack the votes to topple a speaker under ordinary circumstances.
After Republicans secured control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections, McCarthy agreed to make it easier to file a motion to vacate the chair. After initially failing to win the speakership, McCarthy made a concession to the GOP bloc opposing him: In the next Congress, any single member could offer a motion to vacate.
Having an easily deposed speaker makes legislating harder. It empowers dissident members and factions at the incumbent speaker’s expense.
How will the process play out?
Speaking from the House floor on Monday, Gaetz gave formal notice of a resolution to declare the speakership vacant. He did so by presenting it as a “question of privilege,” meaning it has the potential to be considered quickly, though not immediately.
A question of privilege that is not submitted by the chamber’s majority or minority leader can be delayed for two legislative days, congressional scholar Matt Glassman of Georgetown University wrote in a blog post. But on Tuesday, McCarthy announced that he would accelerate that process.
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Glassman said the way Gaetz’s resolution is structured means it’s likely to be upheld as a point of privilege. Once it’s upheld, Gaetz would be entitled to make his case on the floor — but opponents would have a few procedural tools at their disposal first.
Media outlets reported Oct. 3 that McCarthy would pursue a vote to “table” the resolution — in effect, to get rid of it — within hours. A motion to table doesn’t include debate, so it would receive a vote immediately. If the motion to table passed, consideration of Gaetz’s motion would end. “This is the fate of most questions of privilege,” Glassman wrote.
A motion could also be made to refer the resolution to a committee. Unlike a motion to table, this option would require debate. It’s possible that both types of motions could be offered; if so, the motion to table would be considered first. House members would likely move to make the individual yea and nay votes recorded, for transparency.
If none of these efforts succeed, one hour of debate on Gaetz’s motion to vacate would begin, with time divided between supporters and opponents. After an hour, Gaetz could seek to “order the previous question” — a maneuver that, if it passed, would cut off debate and, after a few other motions are exhausted, move to final consideration of the motion to vacate.
If the motion to vacate passes, the speakership would become vacant, and a speaker pro tempore would be elevated. McCarthy has already designated this speaker pro tem but the person’s identity is not publicly known.
The speaker pro tem would preside over a new speaker election. This new speaker vote wouldn’t need to happen immediately, but Glassman wrote that it almost certainly would be handled next.
This process might be slightly less chaotic than the original, 15-round vote in which McCarthy won the speakership earlier this year; by now, the House has its rules in place and its members sworn in, which it didn’t in January.
How much is McCarthy’s speakership really at risk?
Whether McCarthy will be deposed depends on how both Republicans and Democrats react.
If Democrats were to vote unanimously, or nearly unanimously, to vacate the chair, McCarthy could be in real trouble. McCarthy can afford to lose only five votes. Gaetz is already one, and another four GOP defectors are plausible, given the number of members from his own conference who rebelled against the federal spending extension through Nov. 17.
Democrats effectively have three options: vote to keep McCarthy as speaker, vote against McCarthy continuing as speaker, or vote “present.” The third option is important, because any “present” vote “reduces the number of votes McCarthy needs to stay in the speakership. That’s because the resolution requires a majority of those present and voting to pass, not a majority of the whole House,” said Matthew Green, a politics professor at the Catholic University of America.
If every Democrat voted “present,” McCarthy would likely keep his speakership, because most observers see the opposition to McCarthy within the GOP to be a distinct minority view. The high-water mark for GOP detractors in the votes for speaker in January was 21, leaving about 200 supporters.
Would Democrats vote “present”? At least one won’t; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., has said she will vote to oust McCarthy. But many could.
“Removing McCarthy means he might be replaced with someone Democrats like even less,” Green said. “In addition, it sets a precedent that any speaker, including a Democrat, could be easily removed if just a small fraction of the majority party wants to get rid of the speaker.”
So far, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., has been mum about what he’d like to see Democrats do. Democrats could seek concessions from McCarthy to save his speakership.
But in the end, saving McCarthy’s speakership may not require that many Democrats. The broader McCarthy’s support among Republicans, the fewer Democrats would be needed to enable his victory. So, in theory, most Democrats could vote against McCarthy while a smaller number vote “present,” preventing the elevation of a new speaker who appeals even less to Democrats than McCarthy.
Gaetz and his allies could argue that this sort of victory for McCarthy is tainted because he would be saved by Democrats. Already, Gaetz told reporters, “Kevin McCarthy’s true coalition partner on all things of substance has been the Democrats this Congress.”
Gaetz could submit a new motion to vacate over and over again. But “even he is likely to see the futility of doing so if he continuously loses, and by big margins,” Green said.
What happens if McCarthy survives a motion to vacate?
Given his small majority, the rest of the 118th Congress will likely be challenging for McCarthy even if he wins this particular battle, experts said.
“While the Democrats can obviously save McCarthy from a motion to vacate in the short term, they can’t really fix the underlying problem,” Glassman wrote. “It seems exceedingly unlikely — basically impossible — for McCarthy to create a durable, bipartisan procedural coalition, and even if he tried, that would require completely adjusting his policy program toward the Democrats he would be bargaining with, and that would probably make more Republicans abandon him.”