Although there was a sigh of relief that there was no government shutdown as of midnight Saturday due to a deal that would fund the government for another 45 days through the means of a continuing resolution (CR), that just means that November 17 is the next deadline for this never-ending drama. In principle, the delay is meant to give time for the Congress to decide on the 12 appropriations bills that should have been passed by September 30th. But in reality, from now on we are going to have the drama of whether Kevin McCarthy will continue to be speaker. He was forced to choose between a government shutdown and angering the party extremists and he chose the latter by making a deal with the Democrats.
Under the rules that McCarthy negotiated with the extremists in the Republican caucus, any single member can bring up a ‘motion to vacate’ and Florida congressman Matt Gaetz has already announced that he will do so this coming week.
So what will happen next?
Gaetz, or any combination of McCarthy detractors, could at any time introduce a privileged resolution to declare the office of the speaker of the House of Representatives vacant — known as a “motion to vacate.” The introduction alone doesn’t guarantee a vote, but it would be like firing a warning shot to to the House that it’s coming.
After introduction, a lawmaker would have to go to the House floor and request a vote on the resolution, which would be considered privileged and therefore require a vote to occur within two legislative days. Party leadership can determine the timing of the vote, and it could happen as soon as it’s introduced.
The resolution is subject to motions that could ultimately block it from getting a vote. For example, motions to table the resolution, or refer it to committee would be in order. If any of those intermediary steps succeeded, then a vote on the resolution to vacate the speakership would not occur.
If the blocking motions fail, and a vote on the resolution is called, it requires a simple majority of lawmakers present and voting to succeed. If it passes, the speakership is immediately vacated.
If a resolution were to pass, the House would enter into unchartered waters of making new precedent. Under continuity of Congress procedures enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, there is a list of people who can act as speaker pro tempore in an event where the speakership is vacated. This was created in anticipation of a mass casualty event like a terrorist attack, but it would apply if the speakership is vacated. The irony is that list is written by the sitting speaker — so McCarthy knows who is on the list — and it is kept by the House clerk and only to be made public in the event of a vacancy.
Three sources with parliamentary expertise, who all asked to be granted anonymity, said that the next immediate order of business before the House would be the election of a new speaker. The speaker pro tempore cannot serve in the line of succession to the presidency so it would be a matter of national security and constitutional prerogative to have a duly elected speaker.
Here is where things get messy. There is not a majority within the Republican party extremists to vote McCarthy out by themselves. So they would need the votes of sufficient numbers of Democrats to achieve that goal. So one irony among many is that Gaetz and the extremists who are furious with McCarthy for passing the CR bill with the help of Democrats will need the help of Democrats to vote him out.
As for Democrats, so far the party leadership is playing it close to the chest as to what they will do. They will wait and see how the crisis with the Republican party plays out first.
In the run-up to preventing a government shutdown, any questions about what the Democrats would do in the event of a vote to oust Kevin McCarthy as speaker were easily batted aside as too theoretical to entertain.
“We haven’t given any thought to how to handle a hypothetical motion to vacate, because we are entirely focused on making sure that we avoid this extreme MAGA Republican shutdown,” Jeffries said last week.
But avoiding the shutdown has now led directly to a vote on a motion to vacate.
Democrats do not like McCarthy for his prior pandering to the far right, his authorization of an impeachment inquiry against President Biden, his reneging on the deal he struck with president Biden over raising the debt ceiling, and his actions after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on that Capitol when he first castigated serial sex abuser Donald Trump (SSAT) and then soon after groveled before him. He is seen as simply not trustworthy and feckless. So why should they bail him out unless he offers them a very good deal? But it is not clear what he could offer. And why would they trust him to follow through on any deal since he has already shown that his word is worthless?
Meanwhile, Democrats have no love for Gaetz and his extremist allies so why should they vote along with them to remove McCarthy, unless they offer a very good deal? But they really have nothing to offer. There are suspicions that a private deal may have been struck by McCarthy and the Democratic leadership as part of the negotiations over the CR package but there is no evidence of that as yet.
If McCarthy survives with the help of Democratic votes, Gaetz will no doubt relentlessly attack him, as he has already, as “the Democrats’ speaker.” The overall effort will have done a lot of damage. What if Gaetz offers a second MTV, as anyone who knows him realizes he surely would, and McCarthy again has to survive with Democratic help? What happens on the second or third vote? Does Gaetz garner more Republican support? Does McCarthy need to find more Democratic support? There’s no limit to how many times Gaetz could do this. Eventually, this would become untenable for McCarthy.
Normally the minority party in the House Of Representatives have almost no power and simply hang around hoping that the next election will give them the majority. But thanks to the collapse of any kind of party discipline among Republicans, Democrats and their leadership suddenly find themselves wielding a lot of power.
On the pro-keeping-McCarthy side of the ledger is that he’s the devil they know, and there is nobody better waiting in the wings. By avoiding the government shutdown, he also just showed he can be more responsible than some Democrats had believed… This is the institutionalists’ argument.
The other side of the argument is that McCarthy is the GOP’s greatest fundraiser, and getting rid of him would help Democrats take back the House. No replacement for McCarthy would have the same set of relationships and the donor network and political operation. In addition, the argument goes, the GOP chaos in the House would pay political dividends.
One thing to note is the deafening silence from SSAT. Before the CR was passed, he was urging all and sundry to shut the government down because … well, who really knows? He seems to think that will stop at least the federal prosecutions against him, though they would have started again once funding was resumed.
So let the drama commence!