The United States avoided a partial shutdown of the government on Saturday with a last-minute spending bill approved by Congress. The solution was not only temporary — a budget extension until November 17 — but it left open wounds, especially among Republicans. The future of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is now up in the air. Some of the 20-strong members of the hard-right faction have not forgiven him for leaning on the Democrats to avoid the government shutdown. One of the leaders of this group, Congressman Matt Gaetz, introduced on Monday a motion to remove him as House speaker. The conflict between Gaetz and McCarthy has personal overtones, but its impact could have far-ranging political consequences, threatening to plunge the House of Representatives into chaos.
Gaetz is not well-liked within the Republican Party “He is a charlatan,” Mike Lawler, a fellow Republican, said of him a few days ago. In order to be elected House speaker, McCarthy had to make several concessions, including allowing just a single House member to present a motion to vacate. It remains to be seen how many in the hard-right faction will support him. In the House, the Republicans have 221 seats and the Democrats, 212, meaning if just half a dozen of the hardliners support the motion to vacate, his future as speaker will lie in the hands of the Democrats.
A few House Democrats, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have already said that it is not their job to save Republicans. After all, McCarthy recently ordered an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden. Saving him would be a bitter pill. On the other hand, it was McCarthy who reached a deal with Biden to raise the debt ceiling, and the one who proposed the stopgap measure to avoid a government shutdown. What’s more, he is possibly the Democrats’ only hope of getting a new spending bill approved, when the temporary funding bill expires in a month and a half.
Hakeem Jeffries, the leader of House Democrats, has so far provided no clues about what the party would do if McCarthy’s future as speaker were in its hands. “We haven’t had a discussion about any hypothetical motion to vacate. And we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” he said Saturday.
One scenario being considered is for a large number of Democrats to vote “present” or abstain. It is also possible that they may vote against the motion being submitted to the House for consideration — a way of rejecting the motion to vacate via a procedural step. This would be more palatable to the party than voting in favor of McCarthy, but even so, it is likely that they will want some concessions from McCarthy in exchange. The problem is that if McCarthy has to rely on the Democrats again, it would weaken his position in the Republican Party even more.
McCarthy was aware that he was risking his position with his last-minute proposal to avert a government shutdown. Earlier, he had tried to appease the Republican hardliners with a spending bill that included severe cuts, but they rejected it. While he ended up putting forward a new proposal that removed aid to Ukraine, in most areas, the bill temporarily extends funding, without making cuts.
“If I have to risk my job for standing up for the American public, I will do that,” he said Saturday when presenting his proposal. “If somebody wants to remove [me] because I want to be the adult in the room, go ahead and try,” he later insisted.
That somebody is Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz. “I think we need to move on with new leadership that will be trustworthy,” he told CNN on Sunday, in an interview in which he said he intended to file a motion to vacate this week. “The only way Kevin McCarthy is speaker of the House at the end of this coming week is if Democrats bail him out,” said Gaetz, arguing that the motion would be backed by his people.
McCarthy responded defiantly to the threat: “So be it. Bring it on. Let’s get over with it and let’s start governing.” He added that the Gaetz was acting for “personal, political reasons.”
In an address to the House on Monday, Gaetz accused McCarthy of secretly negotiating with Biden to approve additional aid to Ukraine outside the stopgap deal to prevent a government shutdown. He also reiterated his threat to file a motion to vacate, but did not take that step until Monday evening. “It is becoming increasingly clear who the speaker of the House already works for, and it’s not the Republican Conference,” Gaetz said in his speech, hours before he filed the resolution.
Later, as he appeared on the steps of the Capitol, delighted by the attention of the cameras and microphones, he promised to present as many motions as needed to oust McCarthy as speaker, just as it took 15 votes for McCarthy to win the speakership.
If McCarthy is removed, it will not be easy to find a replacement who is capable of uniting the votes of the party’s moderates and far right hardliners. A power vacuum would not help the Democrats, who still need to approve the final spending bill for the new fiscal year, which began on October 1. However, the most far-right Republicans — who just want “to burn the whole place down,” McCarthy himself said — do not care about a possible leadership void, just as they did not care about the government shutdown or the debt ceiling.
The motion to vacate was used was in 1910, when it was introduced by the then Republican speaker, Joseph Cannon, against himself. In that case, it functioned as a vote of confidence to silence the criticism of his fellow Republicans. In McCarthy’s case, it is being filed by an opponent, making it like an impeachment. No motion to vacate has succeeded. However, the one presented in 2015 against John Boehner led to his resignation.
If the motion to vacate prevails, the position would be provisionally occupied by the first person on a list delivered by McCarthy to the secretary of the House. The name would be made public at that time. The provisional speaker’s first task would be to get a new speaker appointed. There is no Republican candidate who commands as much support as McCarthy, who even still needed 15 rounds of voting to be elected in January. Given these divisions, there is a high chance that a vote for a new speaker would lead to a political quagmire.
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