At the beginning of the new Congress, newly-elected representative Cory Mills (R-FL) handed his fellow Republicans inert grenades. It was an apt welcoming gift since House speaker Kevin McCarthy effectively handed conservatives a live grenade when he allowed for a single member to file a motion to vacate the chair, an arcane rule that allows for a no-confidence vote to depose the speaker.
Investing that much power into any single member of the House Republican conference was never going to end well for the speaker. Doing so meant that any member could have the power to veto his agenda the moment they did something he didn’t like.
Up until now, the idea has always been hypothetical. As Republican strategist Liam Donovan posted on X earlier today, “the motion to vacate makes for a better sword of damocles than a guillotine”. During John Boehner’s speakership, then-congressman Mark Meadows filed a motion but the vote never happened and Boehner resigned from Congress shortly thereafter. The threat of a motion to vacate has so far been tested more than the actual motion.
Initially, it looked like McCarthy would survive after the debt limit fight. He effectively cut a deal with the White House which caused the House Freedom Caucus to scream and moan, with Rep Chip Roy (R-TX) saying there would be a “reckoning”. That reckoning never came.
But on Saturday, after the House voted to pass a “clean” continuing resolution, a stopgap spending bill, to keep the government open for 48 days, the fury from the House GOP was palpable. A whopping 90 Republicans, including many who had voted for McCarthy for speaker, were livid about the fact that a continuing resolution with no major spending cuts or provisions to restrict immigration passed with the help of all but one Democrat.
Still, a motion to vacate seemed tenuous. On Monday evening, Rep Ken Buck (R-CO), an archconservative member of the House Freedom Caucus who has regularly criticised McCarthy, told me that he was not sure that there would be a motion to vacate.
Then, after a series of votes, Matt Gaetz, the Florida firebrand who led the charge in January that delayed the vote for speaker until the wee hours of Saturday 7 January, pulled the pin in the grenade when he announced that he would file a motion to vacate. Reporters and staff alike outside the chamber watched his speech on the floor to see him begin his one-man coup against the speaker.
What comes next is anybody’s guess. Back when McCarthy first lobbied for the job, his supporters often said “Only Kevin McCarthy” meaning only he could unite the Five Families, a phrase borrowed from the Mafia.
His support seems wobbly now, even among his most ardent supporters. Back in January, Rep Wesley Hunt of Texas had to leave Washington when his wife prematurely gave birth to his baby boy but he returned promptly to vote for McCarthy. But before the votes began, he did not hide his frustration on Saturday or on Monday at McCarthy.
But on Monday before votes he was cryptic when I asked whether another candidate could earn enough support.
“It doesn't look like that now, but we'll see how the week plays out,” he told me.
Another weak spot comes from Rep Tim Burchett, a Republican from Tennessee, who had backed McCarthy from the beginning. Back in January, when a fight nearly broke out on the House floor, Burchett, an archconservative who nonetheless gets along with Democrats like Nancy Pelosi, tried to whisper some sense into Gaetz.
But on Saturday, he seemed dejected when I spoke with him, telling me that GOP leadership “just cut a sweet enough deal, or enough people would abdicate their duty”.
On Monday, he told reporters that his constituents were telling him to move toward a motion to vacate and said he was torn “between voting against my friend Kevin McCarthy or voting my conscience.” A Southern gentleman to the end, he said his conscience was leaning toward voting to vacate but “I’ll pray about it”.
Democrats for their part seem to be taking some sadistic pleasure. Rep Maxwell Frost, the freshman Democrat from Florida, seemed to enjoy the spectacle as he walked out saying “Oh my God” after his fellow Florida man drew his sword against McCarthy.
Rep Eric Swawlell has taken special pleasure in McCarthy’s misfortunes. As he entered the House floor on Monday, he said simply “not my monkey, not my circus”. McCarthy removed Swalwell from the House Intelligence Committee earlier this year and ever since then Swalwell’s antagonised his fellow Californian.
When I asked whether McCarthy could cut a deal with Democrats to stay in power, he deferred.
“I think that's for our, our leader to negotiate on,” he said. When I asked Bill Pascrell, a Democratic congressman from New Jersey, if he’d vote to vacate, he said simply “you’ll have to watch”.
On the surface, it might seem absurd that Ocasio-Cortez, who has emerged as the Democrat on the House Oversight Committee who can best pick apart Republicans’ vacuous attempts to impeach Joe Biden with ruthless precision, would want to give Gaetz such a tool. But when I spoke with her on Monday, she did not seem deterred.
“I think our priorities are Democratic priorities and we just assess the conditions of the moment,” she said. “It's really not about any one individual, it's about the decision we make as a team to really do as much as we can to deliver for people.”
(Incidentally, despite their many disagreements, Burchett and Ocasio-Cortez are friends and have bonded over her dog).
Fresh Democrat Brittany Pettersen of Colorado, a member of the moderate Problem Solvers Caucus, also deferred to House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, who seems to enjoy fileting McCarthy.
“I think they have to figure this out and Hakeem Jeffries is going to have to figure out if there’s a deal to be made,” she said.
At this point, Gaetz’s decision has sent the House into uncharted territory. McCarthy has so far gotten lucky throughout his brief speakership.
So far, Democrats have been willing to bail him out on the debt limit and keeping the government open and he might hope that just enough Democrats vote “present” to keep them out of the voting equation so he can shore up Republican votes. But as Burchett and Hunt’s discontent shows, he might be facing a mini-revolt even among his allies.
He might also hope that ultimately, a motion to table the attempt at ousting him could succeed, effectively making the threat moot.
Or his luck might finally run out and he could face a coup from Republicans who feel he betrayed them and progressives who want to stick their fingers in his eye. Conversely, he could decide like Boehner did that it simply isn’t worth staying and he could call it a day, move to the Florida keys, drink Bloody Marys and go fishing while working as a lobbyist.
But that doesn’t mean that the House is not irrevocably changed. Gaetz’s move showed that it can be done and now any Republican, no matter how petty their gripe, can follow his lead.
Gaetz has thrown the grenade onto the House floor. And everybody better run for cover, especially McCarthy.