Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Florida, has announced his intention to submit a “motion to vacate the chair” this week. This move is aimed at compelling a vote of no confidence in House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, and potentially triggering a new election for the position of speaker.
Gaetz’s motivation stems from his belief that McCarthy has not upheld his part of the agreement following the extended speaker vote in January. The Florida Republican had previously threatened to use this motion if McCarthy relied on Democratic support to advance spending bills, a strategy that McCarthy employed to avoid a government shutdown.
Attempting to remove a speaker in the middle of a congressional session is a rare and bold maneuver. A similar tactic was employed by former Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican from North Carolina, in the summer of 2015 against then-House Speaker John Boehner, leading to Boehner’s resignation in October of that year.
The last formal effort to remove a speaker occurred in 1910 when dissatisfaction with House Speaker Joe Cannon, a Republican from Illinois, led to calls for his replacement. Cannon took preemptive action by proposing the motion to vacate himself and narrowly survived the challenge with the support of the minority party, though he emerged as a weakened speaker.
The outcome of Gaetz’s move remains uncertain, as it’s unclear whether Democrats might come to McCarthy’s aid in this scenario. It’s worth noting that Rep. Garret Graves, a Republican from Louisiana and a McCarthy ally, has also submitted a motion to vacate the chair, possibly as a preemptive measure to counter Gaetz’s move. McCarthy loyalists may attempt to call Gaetz’s bluff by submitting their own motion first or challenging Gaetz to follow through.
According to House rules, Gaetz’s resolution is considered “privileged,” meaning that when he presents it, the House must consider it immediately or within two legislative days. However, the initial vote won’t be on Gaetz’s motion to vacate the chair. Instead, it’s highly likely that one of McCarthy’s supporters will propose a motion to table (kill) Gaetz’s motion or refer it to the Rules or House Administration Committee. Thus, the first vote will not be on Gaetz’s motion, let alone on electing a new speaker. The vote will be on the secondary motion to either table or refer Gaetz’s proposal.
If the House approves the secondary motion to table or refer, Gaetz’s effort will be effectively terminated. However, if the secondary motion fails, the House will proceed to vote on Gaetz’s primary motion to vacate the chair. If the primary motion succeeds, the House will return to the starting point of the Congress on January 3, and a new speaker election will be necessary. During this period, legislative activity on the House floor would come to a halt, though committees can continue their work.
Historically, speaker elections have taken significant time, such as the 15 rounds spanning five days it took to elect McCarthy initially. The longest speaker election on record was in 1855-1856 when it took the House two months and 163 ballots to elect Speaker Nathaniel Banks, a Republican from Massachusetts.
To win the speaker election, a candidate must receive an outright majority of votes cast for someone by name, with “present” votes not counting. Members who do not vote do not affect the vote total. It’s not merely a matter of having the most votes; it involves complex parliamentary calculations.
As the House currently has 433 members, a successful candidate in a speaker’s race must secure 217 votes if all members vote for a candidate by name. Whether the situation reaches this stage remains uncertain, but the entire process revolves around the arithmetic of votes.
It’s unclear how many Republicans might vote against the secondary motion to table or refer, as McCarthy’s recent actions on government funding have riled some hard-right members. Furthermore, it’s uncertain whether Democrats could assist McCarthy, with some Democratic opponents of McCarthy potentially siding with Republicans aiming to remove the speaker, while others may abstain from voting. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from New York, has indicated that Republicans should resolve their internal disagreements on their own.
If Democrats refrain from voting on the secondary motion, it could reduce the total number of ballots cast, potentially leaving McCarthy’s allies without sufficient votes to kill the motion to vacate. In such a scenario, Gaetz’s motion could advance to the next roll call vote. If the second motion fails, the House will then vote on the initial motion (the motion to vacate), likely leading to an automatic re-election for the position of speaker of the House.
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