Capitol Hill’s Biggest Job Goes Up for Grabs

NRB | October 6, 2023 | Advocacy, Advocacy News

On Tuesday, Oct. 3, a 216-210 vote in the U.S. House of Representatives triggered the dramatic ouster of Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) from his role as Speaker of the House.

The unprecedented move comes just days after McCarthy formulated a last-minute deal to temporarily stave off a government shutdown. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) filed the motion to vacate—one of the very procedural concessions McCarthy was forced to make in order to secure the gavel in the first place.

Here’s what you need to know:

Why did this happen?

Serious fractures in the Republican conference produced a McCarthy speakership that was embattled from the very start. It took four days, fifteen votes, and round after round of heated negotiations for McCarthy to win the gavel in January 2023. Gaetz and his conservative cohort used this process to extract several key concessions from McCarthy on policy, procedure, and personnel. One of these commitments was the restoration of the motion to vacate, a rule governing the procedure by which a speaker can be removed. This version of the rule allows one, singular member of Congress to force a vote on the Speaker’s removal at any time—reinforcing the speakership with built-in accountability to make up for the trust McCarthy’s detractors simply did not have. Under former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a majority of the party was required to support the motion in order to bring it to a vote. Under the current rule, just one member can activate the process.

Tensions began high and intensified quickly once Congress returned from August recess. Members returned to Washington, D.C., with a government shutdown looming and eleven necessary appropriations bills yet to pass through Congress. Two short weeks ago, at the height of the budget battle, McCarthy found himself in a politically harrowing bind: He could bring a Senate-approved continuing resolution (CR) to a vote and pass it with help from Democrats to stave off a shutdown, inflaming conservative Republican members who were poised to retaliate. He could reject the Senate-approved CR and let the government shut down—a scenario that historically does not play out favorably for Republicans in terms of public perception. For a brief moment, the strategy championed by Gaetz seemed poised to prevail: Accept a shutdown as inevitable and bring single-issue spending bills to the floor for consideration one at a time as an opening move in negotiations with the Senate.

But on Saturday, Sept. 30, McCarthy pivoted wildly and brought up a “clean” CR to maintain funding at current levels, mirroring the Senate proposal but—at least on the face of it—excluding funding for Ukraine and border security, two of the most serious budget obstacles. This short-term spending bill passed the House with the meager support of only 126 Republicans and all but one Democrat. The CR was approved by the Senate hours before the midnight deadline, and President Joe Biden signed it on Sunday, indicating that he expected to receive a separate proposal to continue aid to Ukraine.

Democrats gloated, with minority whip Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.) commenting that “Today, Democrats came to the rescue. Speaker McCarthy admitted defeat and asked Democrats to put out the fire that he and his party had started.”

Throughout a weekend media blitz, Gaetz scorched McCarthy for making “multiple contradictory promises” in order to pass the CR and betraying conservatives on numerous other written commitments since January. Gaetz filed the motion to vacate late in the evening on Monday, Oct. 2. Having already handed his detractors the final straw on a silver platter, McCarthy tweeted, “Bring it on.” On Tuesday, Gaetz was joined by seven other Republicans in voting to oust McCarthy: ​​Reps. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), Ken Buck (Colo.), Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), Eli Crane of (R-Ariz), Bob Good (R-Va.), Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), and Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.). With McCarthy’s fate sealed, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), McCarthy’s appointed second, assumed his post as speaker pro tempore and angrily gaveled out the session.

What is the precedent?

What happened to McCarthy is a first in U.S. history. The motion to vacate was first used in 1910, when Speaker Joe Cannon advanced the measure himself to require members of the Republican Party to demonstrate their support or opposition. The motion failed. A handful of motions to vacate have been threatened or attempted since the 1990s but have never been deployed successfully. However, these efforts have tended to prove destabilizing to the speakership. Former Speakers Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and John Boehner (R-Ohio) both resigned their offices after surviving attempted ousters by factions within their party.

What happens now?

As the next name on a secret list that the speaker is required to maintain, McHenry is now acting speaker. House rules dictate that McHenry “shall act as speaker pro tempore until the election of a speaker or a speaker pro tempore.” Many believe that McHenry can only oversee the election of the next speaker. As such, all legislative business in the House would come to a screeching halt.

“The House will be paralyzed. We can expect week after week of fruitless [speaker] ballots while no other business can be conducted. The Democrats will revel in Republican dysfunction and the public will rightly be repulsed,” said Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.).

However, some have argued that with no clear precedent, McHenry can exercise as much latitude as the House permits. The rules do not explicitly prohibit McHenry from overseeing legislative business (although this would not reflect the original intent). Whether McHenry can exercise broader discretion in his temporary role remains to be seen. Nonetheless, McHenry has taken steps that look like revenge against Democrats who sided with Gaetz, ordering former speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and former Democratic leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to vacate their hideaway offices (secret, unlisted offices in the U.S. Capitol reserved for senior House leadership).

Who will replace McCarthy?

McCarthy has already announced that he will not run for speaker again and that the conference should pick someone else. That has paved the way for a few known contenders, although members can technically cast votes for whomever they choose, and anyone can win with a simple majority.

  • House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) has declared that he will run for the speakership. While Scalise is well-liked and has broad support, Scalise is also currently battling a treatable form of blood cancer, which may prove an obstacle to taking on the demanding role.
  • Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a leader of the House Freedom Caucus, has also thrown his hat into the ring and received the endorsement of conservative hardliners, McCarthy allies, and former President Donald J. Trump, who announced on Truth Social, “He will be a GREAT Speaker of the House, & has my Complete & Total Endorsement!”
  • Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, also intends to run for Speaker, according to colleagues.

The biggest name possibly appearing ringside on Capitol Hill next week: Trump himself. Some members have even called for Trump to take the gavel, a very unlikely (but not impossible) maneuver. More likely, Trump—or at least his team—will register endorsement and opposition for leadership candidates across Capitol Hill, seeking optimal conditions for cooperation if Trump’s commanding lead in the polls heralds a path to the White House in 2024.

The House returns next Tuesday, with a closed-door candidate forum planned for that night and leadership elections in the following days. In an unusual move, FOX News’ Bret Baier was slated to host a televised joint interview with Scalise, Jordan, and Hern on Monday, but plans for the event fell apart on Friday afternoon. Despite the keen public interest in the proceedings, speaker candidates must first and foremost prioritize communicating—on a very short timeline—with hundreds of conference colleagues who will cast a vote in leadership elections.

Offering the public the next-best thing to a front-row seat may be good for TV ratings—but as McCarthy’s long road to a brief reign reminds us, becoming speaker is backroom business.

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