Right after House Republicans went low energy and agreed to a clean 45-day continuing resolution over the weekend, Rep. Matt Gaetz announced he would lower the boom on Speaker McCarthy by filing a so-called “motion to vacate” this week. But that threat already seems shaky at best. There are already almost certainly fanciful threats circulating in right-wing media that Republicans will try to expel Gaetz from Congress if the long-simmering ethics investigation into his druggie, teen-dating past finds evidence of wrongdoing. This report started at Fox and got picked up in the New York Post, Daily Mail, et. al. More significant, very few of the hardliners Gaetz will need are coming to his banner. As far as I can tell only Rep. Eli Crane of Arizona has suggested he might be on board.
Don’t hold your breath thinking that Republicans are going to expel Matt Gaetz. That’s BS fed to pliant press. But the attack articles in the right-wing press confirms what is true, which is that a lot of Republicans are seriously pissed at Gaetz for his central role in their latest highwire debacle.
To make sense of his threats we need to discuss the mechanics of how that threat works.
Back in January House hardliners negotiated a deal with McCarthy that allows any single member to bring a “motion to vacate,” which requires a vote to oust McCarthy. Actually, it gives Republicans two days to hold a vote to oust McCarthy or, technically, a vote to opt not to hold the vote. The wording is slightly different. But the upshot is that McCarthy has two days to hold a vote in which a majority of the House supports him as Speaker.
First, let’s set aside fanciful ideas about Democrats sustaining McCarthy’s Speakership. Not impossible but I think pretty unlikely and for the moment a distraction. We’ll get to that later.
If we limit ourselves to Republicans this means that McCarthy can only lose four members and hold on to his Speakership. But this isn’t the end of the story most news reports suggest it is. Let’s say six Republicans vote against McCarthy. Now technically he’s no longer Speaker. I believe House rules again require successive votes for Speaker until a new Speaker is elected. So it’s a replay of last January. Business is suspended until a new Speaker is elected.
So now McCarthy is technically out. But who replaces him? As we’ve noted there are a few McCarthy replacement types who could continue the existing Boehner/McCarthy system under a new name. Various news orgs have floated the name of Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota. There’s also Steve Scalise, though his current cancer treatment would seem to make that unworkable. (Both are members of the leadership and say they are not interested; both would say that regardless.) This is certainly possible. But it strikes me as unlikely.
It’s clear that there are now about two hundred Republicans who are deeply committed to McCarthy if only because it’s the right flank of the Freedom Caucus making all their lives hell and threatening to oust him. He’s the zero-sum focal point of polarization between those two sides. Even if a replacement is unobjectionable in himself — as I suspect Emmer would be — there’s simply no way that the Gaetz/Boebert wing of the Freedom Caucus doesn’t get a lot more powerful than it already is if they’re able to force McCarthy’s ouster. I see no way that calculus isn’t right. And that’s why I think there’s a decent chance that even if McCarthy is ousted they’ll have to rehire him after a few votes or a few days.
Of course, we’re seeing a lot of chatter about Democrats somehow stepping in and saving McCarthy. This seems highly unlikely but not impossible. Any agreement to do this on an organized basis would require major power sharing concessions by McCarthy. Any Republican who entered into such a deal would be an electoral dead man walking. It’s conceivable that Hakeem Jeffries would allow every member a free vote and thus allow a handful of Problem Solver types to vote present and allow McCarthy to slip through. But I tend to doubt it. At the end of the day, why save him? Would a successor allow the House to impeach Biden? Break previous deals and have a new drama every couple of months? Aren’t we already there?
Big picture: I suspect Gaetz is in the process of having his bluff called. Let’s remember that the real reason to oust McCarthy isn’t that he’s not trustworthy. It’s because he hasn’t solved the magic trick of how to get the whole House to vote for the Freedom Caucus wishlist when they only have a four seat majority. He’s failed to deliver the Freedom Caucus pony. No replacement McCarthy will be able to do that either. It’s hard to imagine McCarthy won’t be making the argument to all two hundred of those members that if you don’t like being kicked around by the Gaetz Gang, ending my Speakership is the one way guaranteed to make it a lot worse.