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What to watch in Gaetz vs. McCarthy speaker fight

Unknowns include how Democrats vote, and what would follow if Gaetz wins, or loses

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., is seen on a monitor in the Capitol while criticizing Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on Sept. 12 for allegedly breaking promises he made to get votes to become speaker in January.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., is seen on a monitor in the Capitol while criticizing Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on Sept. 12 for allegedly breaking promises he made to get votes to become speaker in January. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Matt Gaetz said Monday night he would seek to oust Speaker Kevin McCarthy from his leadership spot, dragging their feud onto the House floor and potentially putting Democrats in a position to save or sink the California Republican.

Gaetz’s declaration he would offer a privileged resolution to vacate the speaker’s chair starts a clock that should lead to votes within two days under House rules. Gaetz, R-Fla., did not go into his reasons, but earlier he gave a speech blasting McCarthy for an alleged “secret side deal” over Ukraine aid funding he said the speaker cut with Democrats on Saturday as the House passed a seven-week stopgap funding bill that got 335 votes, with 90 Republicans opposing it.

As GOP and Democratic members continue saying publicly they wonder if McCarthy is a trustworthy deal-maker, President Joe Biden on Sunday told reporters “we just made one about Ukraine, so we’ll find out” if the speaker later this year tries advancing legislation to further help the Eastern European country in its war with Russia. Most House Republicans last week voted against providing new monies to Kyiv, while Democrats are in line with Biden about providing additional aid this year.

“For all the crocodile tears about what may happen later this week about a motion to vacate, working with the Democrats is a yellow brick road that has been paved by Speaker McCarthy, whether it was the debt limit deal, the [continuing resolution] or now the secret deal on Ukraine,” Gaetz said during a floor speech. “This is swampy logrolling.”

By introducing a motion to vacate, Gaetz ironically is manufacturing a scenario he also mocks: McCarthy would likely have little choice but to try winning over enough Democrats to keep his job.

Gaetz challenged McCarthy to come clean about the deal to which the president alluded, saying, “I’ll be listening.”

He later told reporters he would not negotiate with McCarthy on a potential deal to end to his vacate push.

“I think the die is cast based on the motion I just filed. I think the time for that discussion would have been over the last several weeks,” he said arguing McCarthy broke the word he gave Republicans when he was elected speaker after 15 ballots. “But instead we saw the speaker continuing. I mean, the speaker did not just fail to remediate the breach of the agreement he made with us in January. He accelerated the instances of breach.”

Some members have already taken a position on a vote to oust McCarthy and bring the chamber to a standstill. But on Monday, many said they wanted time to mull such a decision and hear from their colleagues during conference meetings over the next few days, including Democratic leadership, which has not yet given its members advice.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., said there was “dead silence” in the chamber as Gaetz made his move because “there’s a certain gravity to this.”

But when asked if Democrats should save McCarthy, he replied: “No. … I do not believe Democrats should provide any support to this speaker. We owe him nothing. In fact, quite the opposite.”

GOP Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., called the vacate attempt a “bad idea,” saying threatening one “didn’t have the intended effect” in 2015 with then-Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio. But he said McCarthy’s problem inside the GOP conference is “mistrust,” and a massive omnibus spending measure later this year could cause him to change his mind and support ousting McCarthy.

Asked if McCarthy’s approach to his job is sustainable, Massie replied: “We’re going to find out if it’s sustainable by the end of the week.”

Washington’s latest drama is underway. Here are three things to watch this week.

Procedure vs. politics

No speaker has ever been kicked out of that office via a motion to vacate. Then-Speaker Joe Cannon, R-Ill., known as the “czar of the House,” saw his power shrink and in 1910 faced a motion to vacate. It was defeated and he remained speaker.

One thing is clear: The House likely would have to drop all other business and consider Gaetz’s motion within two days; McCarthy, as sitting speaker, would set that vote day and time. From there, “it would be a fascinating meeting of procedure and politics,” said Stanley Brand, who was general counsel to the House when Democrat Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. was speaker.

“Since it would be a privileged resolution, the House would probably have to wait to get back on other bills. Those two days would be politically important — maybe that time allows Democrats to be brought into the process,” Brand said. “From my 50 years being involved in this stuff and observing it all, the issue for Democrats is do they want the House to be permanently paralyzed? They have an agenda, too, and I think they want to show themselves as the party of constructive governing.”

If that’s what House Democratic leadership and enough of their charges decide, they could join pro-McCarthy GOP members on the floor in supporting — or at least not opposing — an expected motion to table the motion to vacate. Abstaining, for example, would lower the vote total needed to table, Brand said, adding it would “definitely help McCarthy.”

House rules allow a sitting speaker to give the clerk a list of members who could, should the chamber’s top office become vacant, act as speaker pro tempore. So far, McCarthy has not released such a list of potential fill-ins. Brand questioned whether a sitting speaker’s list would carry any actual legal authority once they were booted, adding: “I’m not sure anybody really knows.”

Deal with Dems?

Some House Democrats seem willing to consider helping McCarthy keep his gavel.

Several have said, however, any tactical moves to thwart Gaetz would have to come with something in return from McCarthy, whom they are not sure they can trust.

Oregon Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer said Monday it is “irrelevant” if McCarthy remains speaker if the “governing” wings of both parties decide to work together on spending bills and other legislation.

Democratic members must decide whether McCarthy is the best option in the speaker’s office — especially after he moved to keep the government open over the weekend — or if they would prefer rolling the dice on another GOP lawmaker. But getting to the point of someone else garnering the required votes could take days, weeks or even longer.

“I don’t know of anyone else in the House Republican Conference who could get 218 votes, or whatever the actual threshold would be, but pretty close to that,” Brand said.

Friends of Kevin

Allies of the speaker wasted little time going after Gaetz, alleging it is a “personal” matter for him because McCarthy did not shut down an Ethics Committee investigation into Gaetz. Others wondered aloud whether the Florida lawmaker is mostly interested in raising his profile and fundraising prowess for a possible run for governor in the Sunshine State.

Gaetz told reporters his gripes with the speaker are about spending and procedure, and not personal issues.

Aaron Cutler, a former senior leadership staffer for then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., questioned in a Monday interview how Gaetz could square his demand that McCarthy continue floor work on right-leaning spending bills while, as he threatened Sunday, to offer the motion to vacate over and over again.

“Doing that would just gum up the process and work against the appropriations process,” Cutler said. “If this just keeps coming up and up and up, and we waste weeks of floor time on it, and we don’t get around to doing appropriations bills, and we get to mid-November, then we have to deal with funding the government again, I think that would be super-extreme.”

McCarthy ally Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., said Monday Gaetz is “driving us into the iceberg.”

“A lot of drama right now. I think a lot of this was personal. I think Matt Gaetz, trying to get rid of the speaker is a bit like rooting for the iceberg when you’re standing on the Titanic,” Garcia told Fox News. “And in this case, the skipper isn’t Kevin McCarthy, the skipper of the ship is actually the American people.”

Ellyn Ferguson and Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report.

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