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How the far right could remove McCarthy and why his fate could be in Democrats' hands

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., pauses as he addresses reporters about efforts to pass appropriations bills and avert a looming government shutdown at the U.S. Capitol on Friday. He is joined at right by House Homeland Security Chair Mark Green, R-Tenn., and Rep. Monica de la Cruz, R-Texas.
J. Scott Applewhite
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., pauses as he addresses reporters about efforts to pass appropriations bills and avert a looming government shutdown at the U.S. Capitol on Friday. He is joined at right by House Homeland Security Chair Mark Green, R-Tenn., and Rep. Monica de la Cruz, R-Texas.

Updated October 1, 2023 at 9:28 AM ET

Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz has been threatening for weeks to start the procedural motions to try to remove Kevin McCarthy from the speakership. A day after McCarthy relied on Democratic votes to keep the government funded for at least 45 days, Gaetz said he's not backing down from the threat.

"I think we need to rip off the Band-Aid. I think we need to move on with new leadership that can be trustworthy," Gaetz said Sunday on CNN's State of the Union. "Look, the one thing everybody has in common is that nobody trusts Kevin McCarthy."

Gaetz is one of a few hardline Republicans who have tied McCarthy's political fate to the spending fight that threatened to shut down the government.

For his part, McCarthy seems resigned to the challenge.

"So be it. Bring it on," he said Sunday on CBS's Face the Nation. "Let's get over with it and let's start governing."

McCarthy wouldn't be in this position had he not agreed to far-right demands to change House rules to make it easier for a single member to offer a resolution to remove him from office. But without that concession McCarthy may not have been able to secure the gavel after 15 rounds of voting at the start of the Congress in January.

How does a motion to vacate work?

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. This is precisely what former Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., did back in 2015 against then-Speaker John Boehner, but Boehner stepped down before a vote was called.

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.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., talks to reporters just after House Speaker Kevin McCarthy's last-ditch plan to keep the government temporarily open collapsed on Friday.
J. Scott Applewhite / AP
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., talks to reporters just after a plan from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to keep the government temporarily open collapsed on Friday.

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.

This is where Democrats come in to play

McCarthy still appears to enjoy the support of the vast majority of the 221 House Republicans. But with a narrow four-seat majority, only a sliver of the GOP conference could vacate the speakership if the 212 Democrats vote en masse to defeat any blocking motions, and then in favor of the resolution to vacate.

Democratic leaders have refused to engage in any war gaming about the vote. "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," Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said Thursday.

Two senior Democratic aides who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about internal party deliberations said that informal conversations are happening among blocs of Democrats about how to handle the vote, but there is no united party consensus.

The aides said one calculating factor is if the resolution is offered during a government shutdown, Democrats might be less inclined to add to the governing chaos by offering their votes to remove the speaker. At the same time, if Democratic votes are necessary to save McCarthy, there would likely be some negotiations as to what Democrats can receive in exchange for their votes.

Additionally, one of the aides said there is so little regard for McCarthy among Democrats — for his fealty to the far right, his authorization of an impeachment inquiry against President Biden and his actions after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on that Capitol — that it was hard to envision saving him.

"I can tell you I have been in a number of conversations and I have not heard one Democrat voice any interest in saving Kevin," an aide said. Another aide noted that Democrats don't believe they can trust the speaker to cut any deals to win their votes, noting he walked away from the budget deal he cut with President Biden in late May just days after it was signed in to law.

No speaker has ever been removed in this manner

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.

What would be different in this scenario than in January at the start of a new Congress is that all lawmakers are sworn in, House rules have been approved and committees are constituted. Lawmakers could still hold committee hearings and assist constituents, but the business before the House would be to elect a speaker. As the House experienced in January, this can take days and multiple rounds of balloting until a lawmaker receives a majority of the full House.

How long that could take, or who could replace McCarthy, is hard to predict. Multiple news outlets reported this week that some Republicans have approached Majority Whip Tom Emmer, R-Minn., should the effort to oust McCarthy succeed. Emmer in turn pledged his support to McCarthy.

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Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.