early and often

Will Kevin McCarthy Face the Loss of His Speakership Every Day?

Kevin McCarthy could win a slippery gavel in January. Photo: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

Most of the chatter about Kevin McCarthy’s not-so-firm grip on the small House majority his party won in November is focused on the formal election of a Speaker in January. McCarthy won the GOP nomination for that job shortly after it became clear Republicans had flipped the House, but it’s possible a few renegade House Freedom Caucus types could vote against (or, more likely, abstain from voting for) their putative leader when the deal goes down. His margin of control is a mere five votes. The outcome of that vote and its significance for McCarthy’s tenure may depend on a decision House Republicans will make this week about the rules that will govern the House while they control it.

The big issue to resolve is whether Republicans will restore the availability of a device called a “motion to vacate the chair,” an archaic House precedent forgotten about for many decades until it was revived by HFC folk determined to deep-six then-Speaker John Boehner in 2015. In effect, this motion allows dissidents (or just one dissident in the old iteration of the rule) to force a new election for Speaker at the drop of a hat. It succeeded as the pressure point to force Boehner into retirement; he was eventually replaced by Paul Ryan after Kevin McCarthy was passed over as unacceptable to HFC hard-liners. But the motion to vacate the chair was watered down significantly when Democrats took over the House after the 2018 elections; currently, it can be offered by a party leader (presumably the House Minority Leader) only at the behest of a majority of members from that party, not a single critic representing a faction in the Speaker’s own party.

The HFC is demanding restoration of the motion to vacate the chair in its original glory as part of a package of rules changes that would also include a “majority of the majority” requirement for allowing legislation to reach the floor (essentially banning coalitions with Democrats over the objections of House conservatives), expanded membership for House leadership groups, and restrictions on spending measures (particularly spending earmarks). The motion-to-vacate-the-chair “reform” is the most significant since it would make McCarthy’s seat as Speaker exceedingly insecure while making future HFC demands potentially existential for him and any Republican successors.

As Punchbowl News reports, McCarthy may abandon hard-line opposition to a restored motion to vacate the chair in favor of a compromise that brings back this sword of Damocles but makes it somewhat more difficult to wield:

Quite frankly, how McCarthy handles the motion-to-vacate debate may play a big role in whether he can get the votes needed to become speaker. Can McCarthy revise the threshold required to offer a motion to vacate from a majority of the conference to, say, 20 to 30? That would allow some middle ground between one member and more than 100. Some of his allies suggest this is a plausible alternative.

McCarthy told us he’s open to talking about a different threshold.

“You can always discuss a different number,” McCarthy said.

Obviously enough, the smaller that number winds up being, the more leverage the HFC will have over McCarthy as Speaker and the less reasonable his conduct will become in dealings with the House minority, the Democratic Senate, and the Democratic White House. The rules negotiations will be an early test of the extent to which the Californian simply becomes a puppet for the most extremist elements in a party that is already heading to the far right.

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Will McCarthy Face the Loss of His Speakership Every Day?