The day after Congress passed its last-minute continuing resolution (CR), Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) announced his campaign to have Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) vacated by week’s end. “If at this time next week, Kevin McCarthy is still speaker of the House, it will be because Democrats bailed him out and he can be their speaker, not mine,” the fed-up lawmaker declared in an interview with ABC News Sunday, October 1.
But Rep. Gaetz is not without enemies – or scandal – of his own. Shortly after the representative from Florida made his intentions known, Fox News reported that a Republican member of Congress, whose name the outlet did not publish, claimed the House GOP would try to expel Gaetz if a report from the ethics committee came back with findings of guilt.
Can Gaetz oust McCarthy before getting the boot himself? This is the drama destined to play out over the next week or two as the House GOP civil war comes to a head.
The Sword of McCarthy
Not long after McCarthy won the speakership – barely, and only after a historic 15 rounds of voting – Liberty Nation’s Mark Angelides compared the new House rules to the legendary Sword of Damocles.
“He [Cicero] described the eponymous court flatterer who wondered why his sire, King Dionysius II, could not enjoy the trappings of wealth and power. In response, the king provided the young man with all he could desire, but for a sharp sword suspended by a single horsehair above him,” Angelides wrote. As one might imagine, that constant threat tainted Damocles’ experience. “Now that the House of Representatives has voted to pass Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) rules package, the new Speaker of the House may just understand the unfortunate Damocles a little better,” he concluded.
It took a lot of wheeling and dealing for McCarthy to get the gavel – and the hair from which his own sword dangles is a rule change allowing just a single House member to call a vote to vacate the speaker. That hair, it seems, has finally snapped under the weight of too many broken promises, at least as far as Rep. Gaetz is concerned.
Let the Circus Begin?
According to the rules McCarthy agreed to, a single representative from either party can make the required motion. If Gaetz stands up on a Monday to be recognized by the Republican presiding over the chamber and then verbally introduces his motion to vacate the chair, there would then have to be a vote on it by Wednesday.
The House could take an up-or-down vote, in which case Gaetz would need a simple majority: 217, if everyone is present and voting. The House could also take a procedural vote instead, which might mean voting to table (set aside) the motion or referring it to a committee. In either of those cases, Gaetz or anyone else could introduce another motion as early as the next day. Gaetz – and anyone he manages to recruit to his crusade against McCarthy – could force repeated votes to vacate the speaker, and there’s little that can be done to stop it, should he or anyone else be so inclined. The business of the House could continue, more or less as usual, but only after the regularly occurring motions are dealt with for the day.
Should the California legislator lose one of those votes, however, it would immediately trigger a very precise set of steps that have to be carried out perfectly in order before anything else can be done, effectively locking down the lower chamber for however long the process takes. First, the House Clerk would make public the list McCarthy made – which every speaker must create – of who can serve as speaker pro tempore in the event the chair is vacated. That person would then act as speaker, but only for the sake of holding elections to formally fill the role. Just like back in January, no other business can be addressed until a speaker is elected – no matter how long or how many votes it takes.
It took 15 tries over several days to get McCarthy elected, as every Democrat consistently voted against him and the Freedom Caucus holdouts knew they had the leverage to see their demands met. If enough vote to vacate, it seems highly unlikely that they’ll turn around and re-elect him should the speaker’s supporters nominate him again. That said, none of the other names called out in January came anywhere close to getting the votes to beat him. If Gaetz – or anyone else, for that matter – introduces this motion and McCarthy fails to hold the gavel, it could take considerably longer to get the House back up and running – and the timing couldn’t possibly be worse with a mere 45 days before the current CR runs out and either a new one or a full year funding package must be negotiated and passed to avoid a partial government shutdown.
“We can either start Monday to pass single subject appropriation bill [sic] and secure the border, or we can start the circus,” Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) said, hoping to convince his fellow Republicans that there were more important things to do at the moment than fight over the speakership.
Weighing the Numbers – Possibilities Abound
The House Ethics Committee has been investigating Matt Gaetz since 2021 on allegations that include campaign finance law violation, bribery, drug use, and even sex trafficking of an underage girl. If the report – which is, it seems, mostly complete – comes back showing a likelihood of guilt on any of those, Gaetz could find himself in the hot seat, facing expulsion from the House entirely. At least some in his own party are reportedly already preparing the motion to oust him.
Such a move would require a two-thirds vote in the House. Democrats, of course, seem likely to back the play, as it could reduce the GOP majority by one more vote – but how many Republicans believe the man is toxic enough to justify losing the seat?
Then there are the questions about McCarthy. Could the GOP drop Gaetz before he throws the speakership back into flux – or would the timing play out so that both men lose? And what chance does Gaetz’s motion to vacate, should he actually introduce it this time, stand in a floor vote, anyway? If every Democrat voted to vacate, it would only take a small handful of Republicans for the motion to succeed. That’s not a big ask considering there were 20 who opposed McCarthy to begin with, all but one of whom were part of the 90 who voted against the CR that so enraged Mr. Gaetz.
That some in the minority party – perhaps even most – would work to see McCarthy unseated is a given. But the same can’t necessarily be said for all of them. Others have expressed concern that, should McCarthy lose, the gavel could go to someone much farther to the right. How many will take the chance of that? It could well be that Gaetz moves to vacate, and enough Democrats come to the rescue to keep McCarthy in power. But who can say what weight that would add to the sword hanging once again over the speaker’s head – or how tenuous the knot holding it?