A viewer’s guide to the McCarthy-Gaetz showdown

A viewer’s guide to the McCarthy-Gaetz showdown

It’s the face-off that everyone in Washington is watching: Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) says he’s days or even hours away from forcing a vote on ejecting Speaker Kevin McCarthy. But that doesn’t mean the vote will look straightforward when (or if) it finally happens.

So we figured we would, like a certain 1990s Nickelodeon heroine, explain it all.

The McCarthy ouster will technically come in the form of what Hill denizens call the “motion to vacate” the speaker’s chair, a tool that has never in history succeeded in removing a speaker. It was last used more than a century ago, but here’s the first wrinkle: It’s not really a motion at all.

Gaetz will have to start by introducing a resolution to declare the office of the speaker vacant. This measure will look something like what a reporter found left on a House bathroom changing table a couple of weeks ago, with Gaetz’s name on it.

Gaetz can get speedy consideration of his resolution by attaching a procedural “privilege” to it. That means McCarthy can take it up immediately or delay consideration for up to two legislative days. Once McCarthy takes it up, the House could travel one of three paths:

  • A vote to table Gaetz’s push, effectively killing it. (This is the most likely option.)
  • A vote to postpone consideration of it.
  • A vote to refer it to a committee. 

If Gaetz’s resolution survives an attempt to table it, which is expected to come from McCarthy allies, history would be made. That outcome would require Democrats joining a handful of anti-McCarthy conservatives to support the ouster effort.

The House would then move towards a vote on the Gaetz resolution itself, literally prying the gavel from McCarthy’s hands.

Here’s where it gets extra tricky, with scratch paper needed. More than 200 Republicans will likely support McCarthy continuing as speaker.

The group of Republicans open to removing McCarthy, then, is a tiny fraction of the GOP Conference. With robust arm-twisting, Gaetz can expect a maximum of two dozen allies (and that’s ambitious).

But McCarthy doesn’t need 218 votes to survive. He only needs to get a simple majority of the members voting. That’s where Democrats get their major leverage here, with his fate essentially in their hands.

If Democrats vote present, they can take themselves out of the “members voting” count and allow McCarthy to hang on with less than a full majority of the current House, and with potentially much less support than he got in January’s grueling speaker election.

Minority Whip Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) hasn’t yet indicated how Democrats will vote, promising a “caucus-wide discussion” if Gaetz makes his move. But Gaetz has been talking with Democrats about how many of them would vote to bail out the speaker that most of them abhor.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) funeral is Thursday, which could scramble the House’s schedule (more on that below the jump). A bevy of House Democratic absences could upend the math we outlined above, making it easier for McCarthy to hang on.

If this scenario happens, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) might call it history repeating. As Massie recalled on Monday, the conservatives whipping against former Rep. John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) speakership bid in 2015 saw their efforts start to fail after some Democrats skipped the vote – to attend the late Gov. Mario Cuomo’s (D-N.Y.) funeral.

If McCarthy is booted, his immediate replacement won’t be chosen by Gaetz – it will be handpicked by McCarthy himself. Here’s why.

Under a system created after Sept. 11, 2001, to ensure continuity of government, the House clerk would bring out a thus-far-secret list of McCarthy’s preferred successors. The first name on that list would immediately become an acting speaker, with all the authority of a regular speaker, and thus empowered to oversee the election of a new speaker.

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