U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is facing an extraordinary referendum on his leadership of the House of Representatives after a conservative member of his own conference, a longtime critic, moved to trigger a vote on whether he should remain at the helm.
“I have enough Republicans where at this point next week, one of two things will happen: Kevin McCarthy won’t be the speaker of the House or he’ll be the speaker of the House working at the pleasure of the Democrats,” Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz told reporters after he filed the motion.
“I’m at peace with either result because the American people deserve to know who governs them.”
McCarthy responded minutes later on social media, “Bring it on.”
The far-right Republican from Florida, has for months threatened to use a procedural tool — called a motion to vacate — to try to strip McCarthy of his office. Those threats escalated over the weekend after McCarthy relied on Democrats to provide the necessary votes to fund the government.
Outcome could be humiliation — or newfound strength
That decision has set McCarthy up for what will likely be the ultimate test of his leadership and may force him to look across the aisle to Democrats for support. But how the vote will unfold remains unclear, as possible manoeuvring could sway the outcome. And allies of McCarthy have said for weeks they were ready for a motion to come.
The vote could result in humiliation — the first speaker ever ousted from the job through such a motion — or newfound strength as he overcomes yet another obstacle while trying to lead a narrow, unwieldy majority.
His fellow Republican critics have been hounding him from the start, denying him votes and thwarting his plans. But McCarthy has recently welcomed the effort to oust him and suggested it’s an opportunity to silence his critics once and for all.
Gaetz acknowledged his effort is likely to fail. He responded to questions about what he hoped to accomplish with the remark that Americans need to know who’s in charge.
In a speech on the House floor earlier in the day, Gaetz demanded McCarthy disclose the details of a supposed deal the speaker made with the White House to bring forward legislation to help fund the war in Ukraine during funding negotiations.
Brushing off the threat, McCarthy told reporters earlier at the Capitol, “I’m focused on doing the work that has to be done.” He said there was “no side deal” on Ukraine, noting he has not spoken to U.S. President Joe Biden.
A motion to vacate is a rare and strong procedural tool that has only been used twice in the past century, both times against Republican Speakers. But in recent years, conservatives have wielded the motion as a weapon against their leaders.
In January, McCarthy, hoping to appease some on the hard right like Gaetz as he fought to gain their vote for Speaker, agreed to give as few as five Republican members the ability to initiate a vote to remove him.
But when that wasn’t good enough for his critics, he agreed to reduce that threshold to one — the system that historically has been the norm.
‘Do we side with a sociopath or an incompetent?’
That decision has set McCarthy up for the ultimate test of his leadership as he will now have to rely on Democrats to on Democrats to not support Gaetz’s effort to force his removal.
It is not clear whether Gaetz will succeed. Republicans control the chamber by a narrow 221-212 majority, and it would take as few as five defections to threaten McCarthy’s hold on power, if all Democrats vote against him.
Only a few have signalled so far that they would support the motion. Republican Rep. Bob Good, who has long wanted McCarthy gone, said the speaker’s weekend deal with Democrats to keep the government running without any of the conservative priorities is just another reason he will be voting for the ouster. “We got nothing,” he said Monday.
Other far-right members and allies of Gaetz were less sure. Republican Rep. Andy Ogles said his position on the motion was “to be determined.”
“We’re going to get together with some of our colleagues and walk it through to figure out next steps,” Ogles said.
Still, showing the tough road ahead to win over conservative support for ousting the speaker, one leading Republican hardliner, Rep. Thomas Massie said, “It’s a really bad idea.”
Massie said the real history-making moment has been the House working through its regular job of trying to pass spending bills, and he worries this effort will quash all that. “If you’re asking how I feel, I am sad that this might be the end of that experiment,” he said.
Democrats were largely treating the moment as another episode in a Republican-led House that has been full of chaotic twists since the start of the year, and declining to say whether they would work to help McCarthy keep his job or vote to oust him.
“Do we side with a sociopath or an incompetent?” said Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan, a progressive leader. “I don’t know.”
Rep. Gregory Meeks, also a Democrat, said it was “another day at the show.”
With files from Reuters