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Anti-McCarthy group vows not to be picked off one-by-one

Dispute continues over whether single member can try to oust speaker

Reps. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., right, and Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., talk before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on legislative responses to deter prosecutorial abuse of power on June 30, 2021.
Reps. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., right, and Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., talk before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on legislative responses to deter prosecutorial abuse of power on June 30, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

As Republicans huddled Wednesday to discuss House rule changes that could help Kevin McCarthy in his quest to become speaker, five members who have publicly opposed him made clear they’re organizing as a bloc and can’t be peeled off individually.

Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Bob Good of Virginia, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Matt Rosendale of Montana and Ralph Norman of South Carolina have all broadcast plans to vote against McCarthy. 

Leaving the rules discussion, where no final decisions were made, Biggs and Norman said they remained unmoved in their resolve to oppose McCarthy and expect their bloc of five will remain united in the Jan. 3 floor election and likely expand before then. 

“It will grow,” Norman said.

Biggs has stepped up as an alternative candidate and is planning to vote for himself. He said he expects the other four to vote for him too, which Norman confirmed is his plan. 

“I trust all four of the bloc,” Biggs said. 

The five-member bloc is powerful because four is the maximum number of GOP votes McCarthy could lose in what will be a 222-member conference and still become speaker if no one is absent or votes “present” to lower the threshold. Only members voting for a speaker candidate by name count toward determining the majority threshold McCarthy needs to win, which would be 218 if all members are present and vote for someone by name. 

While Biggs does not expect anyone else to challenge McCarthy before Jan. 3, he said others will step forward once it becomes clear no one has 218 votes. 

“People have quietly come to me and some others and expressed interest, and I find that intriguing,” Biggs said. He declined to name those Republicans but said they’re House members who are not in the Freedom Caucus.

Fence sitters

Beyond the bloc of five, others who remain on the fence about McCarthy are seeking House rule changes to help them make their decision. 

The House Freedom Caucus has floated numerous rule changes they want to see, but only some of the group’s roughly three dozen members are trying to leverage their speaker vote to secure them.

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry, R-Pa., sent a “Dear Colleague” letter last week outlining priorities for rule changes and other commitments they want from any speaker candidate. Four other Freedom Caucus members, Reps. Chip Roy of Texas, Dan Bishop of North Carolina, Andrew Clyde of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona, and two members-elect who are expected to join the group, Eli Crane of Arizona and Andy Ogles of Tennessee, also signed the letter. 

Their conditions include: allowing any individual member to offer a privileged motion to vacate the chair, a mechanism to oust the speaker; ensuring members have at least 72 hours to read a bill before a vote; limit bills moving on the floor to a single subject; and allowing germane amendments to be debated on the floor. 

Clyde, who just won his second term, said in a statement he has a good working relationship with McCarthy and considers him a friend.  The items presented in the letter “are simply what I expect and require for anyone seeking the responsibility of serving as speaker — as accountability of the speaker to the membership is paramount,” he said.  

Perry declined to get into too many details after Wednesday’s rules discussion but said members having an opportunity to debate rules before leaders set them was progress. 

“This is the first House rules forum I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I think it’s a step in the right direction. I also would say that none of this would be happening if we had a 240-seat majority.” 

Norman said the bloc of five is also interested in many of the same suggestions Perry and other Freedom Caucus members have made on the motion to vacate, single-issue bills and having 72 hours to review legislation before a vote.

McCarthy has yet to agree to more than minimal changes, members have said. If he were to offer major concessions they are seeking, Norman said the bloc would get together and debate whether to drop their opposition. 

“Everybody has main issues, but the good thing is we’re together on a majority of them,” he said. “And we’ll get together and discuss it.” 

Motion to vacate

The motion to vacate has become a lightning rod in the speaker and rules discussions because that’s the tool Freedom Caucus members used in 2015 to help force out then-Speaker John A. Boehner. 

At the time, any member could file a motion to vacate; the one against Boehner was introduced by then-Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, a founding Freedom Caucus member who left Congress to become White House chief of staff under President Donald Trump.

Democrats changed the motion to vacate rule in 2019 after taking back the majority. Now it can only be brought up for a vote over the objection of leadership if offered at the direction of a party caucus or conference, instead of just a single member. 

The GOP debate Wednesday on the motion to vacate went as expected, with some members supporting efforts to make deploying it less onerous and others opposing that, Perry said. McCarthy, he said, “was really moderating. I don’t know that he really addressed his views on it.”

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who is set to chair the Rules Committee next Congress, said some members during the motion-to-vacate discussion noted the conference rule change Republicans adopted before Thanksgiving, stating a privileged motion to vacate the chair should only be available with the agreement of the Republican Conference. This was designed to prevent Democrats from choosing the speaker.

Although Republicans could remove or replace that rule if McCarthy were to agree and push for a less onerous standard, the conference vote last month demonstrated most GOP members don’t want the speaker to face a vote on removal whenever a single member is displeased. 

Cole said Wednesday’s discussion was broad, with members floating ideas like lowering the threshold for filing a motion to vacate but ensuring it takes more than one member.

“It’s a very much to-be-decided kind of issue,” he said. 

Motion to recommit

Cole said other changes beyond the Freedom Caucus demands were discussed. For example, Republicans had a “robust discussion” about whether to restore the old motion to recommit rule that would allow the minority to alter bills on the floor if they got enough Democrats to vote with them. 

Democrats defanged the motion to recommit in 2021, allowing only motions to send bills back to committee, which essentially kill progress on an issue and made it easier for Democrats to unify in opposition to a GOP motion than a substantive change.

Republicans complained loudly about the change in 2021, but Cole said it’s not clear whether they will restore the previous version of the motion to recommit when they take power in January. 

“I think there’s a sense that why give them back a tool that they took from the minority when they’re going into the minority,” he said. “But again there’s two points of view on that, and no final decision.” 

Cole said he has no specific timeline planned for releasing a rules package to present to the conference but suspects there won’t be another conference meeting on rules before that is ready. 

“My timeline is whatever the leader’s timeline is,” he said, referring to McCarthy.

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