The impending showdown on Capitol Hill over government funding represents a significant leadership test for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. The road ahead is rocky as the speaker faces tough vote math, major challenges and the potential threat of a conservative revolt against his speakership.
House Republicans control only a narrow majority, a dynamic that has left McCarthy with little room to maneuver and has given hardline conservatives outsized influence to exert pressure over the speaker.
To win over critics and secure the gavel, McCarthy and his allies made a series of concessions to conservatives. One major concession was to restore the ability of any one member to offer what’s known as a motion to vacate the speaker’s chair – a move that can trigger a House floor vote to oust the speaker.
Firebrand Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, has so far been the most vocal in floating the possibility of using a motion to vacate against McCarthy.
On Tuesday, Gaetz outlined a series of demands, including calling for passage of individual spending bills and not a short-term stopgap measure to fund the government, as he threatened a push to remove the speaker. “Do these things or face a motion to vacate the chair,” he said in a speech on the House floor.
Later, Gaetz warned that there could be constant votes to oust the speaker. “We are going to have them regularly,” he told reporters, suggesting it could happen daily. “If we have to begin every single day in Congress with the prayer, the pledge and the motion to vacate then so be it,” he said.
What is a motion to vacate?
In practical terms, a motion to vacate the chair takes the form of a resolution to remove the speaker by declaring the speakership to be vacant. It is a rarely used procedural tool – and no House speaker has ever been ousted through the passage of a resolution to remove them. But threats over its use can be a powerful way to apply pressure to a speaker.
How would an effort to oust the speaker unfold?
Any member can file a House resolution to remove the speaker. According to House precedent, a resolution to remove the speaker would be considered privileged, a designation that gives it priority over other issues. But simply filing the resolution does not force a vote on its own, though it would be sure to ignite a political firestorm and a debate over the speaker’s future.
To force a vote, a member would need to come to the House floor and announce their intent to offer the resolution to remove the speaker. Doing that would then require the speaker to put the resolution on the legislative schedule within two legislative days – setting up a showdown on the floor over the issue.
If a member introduces a resolution, but does not announce it from the floor, that would not force a vote or have any immediate impact – making it more of a symbolic threat or warning shot to the speaker.
How many votes are needed?
A vote on the resolution to remove the speaker would require a majority vote to succeed and oust the speaker from their leadership post.
A vote on a resolution to remove the speaker could still be preempted, however, even once it is on track to come to the floor for consideration.
For example, when the resolution is called up on the floor, a motion to table – or kill – the resolution could be offered and would be voted on first. That vote would also only require a simple majority to succeed – and if it did succeed then there would not be a vote directly on the resolution to remove the speaker because the resolution would instead be tabled.
What happens if it succeeds?
According to the reference guide “House Practice: A Guide to the Rules, Precedents and Procedures of the House,” the speaker is required to submit a confidential list to the Clerk of people “in the order in which each shall act as Speaker pro tempore in the case of a vacancy.”
Should McCarthy suddenly find himself out of his job as speaker, the Clerk will then pull out that list, and the number one name on that list becomes the interim speaker. His or her first order of business: The election of a new speaker – and once again, the House will have to vote as many times as it takes to get someone to 218 votes, or a majority of those present and voting for a speaker.
Has this happened before?
The last time a high-profile showdown played out on Capitol Hill over a motion to vacate was in 2015 when then-GOP Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina filed a resolution to declare the office of speaker vacant while John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, was serving as speaker. It was not brought to a floor vote, however.
Not long after the resolution was filed, Boehner downplayed its significance, calling it “no big deal.” But a few months later, he announced that he had decided to resign, saying that he had planned to step down at the end of the year but that turmoil within his caucus prompted him to resign earlier than planned.
Another notable incident took place in 1910, when then-House Speaker Joseph Cannon, an Illinois Republican, held onto the speakership after a resolution to remove the speaker came to a vote on the House floor and failed – 155 to 192.
While a push to oust the speaker may loom as a major political threat, there are a number of factors that would make it challenging for such an effort to ultimately succeed in removing the speaker.
“It’s probably harder to remove a speaker using a privileged resolution than people think,” said Matthew Green, a professor of politics at Catholic University in Washington, DC, and author of the book “The Speaker of the House: A Study of Leadership.”
“It requires a pivotal bloc of members of the majority willing to withstand criticism and peer pressure from their partisan colleagues for introducing the resolution, bipartisan agreement that the incumbent speaker should be ousted, and a majority willing to select someone else to replace the speaker.”
“It remains a potent threat as long as people believe it is a viable tool to remove a speaker. If it is actually brought to the floor and fails, it will lose its potency,” Green said.