House Republicans face a decision in the coming days on not only who should be the next speaker but also whether to change House rules to make it easier for that person to stay in the role.
Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy only gained the speaker’s gavel earlier this year after agreeing to changes demanded by a group of Republican holdouts, who in part insisted on more power to influence legislation, such as through the appropriations process and open amendments on bills.
One change became the most consequential: lowering the threshold for bringing a “motion to vacate” the office of the speaker. Any member could file the proposal, instead of it needing to be offered at the direction of a party caucus or conference.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., used that provision of House rules to force a vote Tuesday. The votes of eight Republicans, along with Democrats, was enough to oust McCarthy.
With such a narrow Republican majority, the next speaker could face the same motion to vacate fate — or at least have to operate under the threat of it.
The motion-to-vacate rule has already become an issue among Republicans in the race for the next speaker, with some in the conference insisting on strengthening the next speaker’s ability to govern. But the same GOP conference members who ousted McCarthy could stand in the way, part of a long internal party struggle over the way government spending and the appropriations process have been handled.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who is seeking the speakership, told Fox News on Thursday morning that Republicans would need to make the decision internally, without the help of votes from Democrats.
“We will have to decide as 222 Republicans, are we going to change that? That’s the only way it gets done,” Jordan said.
Rep. Carlos Gimenez, R-Fla., on Wednesday called the vote against McCarthy “DESPICABLE” and said he would not support any candidate until there’s a “commitment” to change the rule.
“No one can govern effectively while being threatened by fringe hostage takers,” Gimenez posted on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
The House Main Street Caucus, a group of more than 70 “pragmatic conservatives” led by Reps. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota and Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma, signaled Wednesday that their support for a speaker may hinge on a change to make it more difficult to bring a motion to vacate.
“The ability for one person to vacate the Speaker of the House will keep a chokehold on this body through 2024,” a caucus post on X stated. “Personal politics should never again be used to trump the will of 96 percent of House conservatives. Any candidate for speaker must explain to us how what happened Tuesday never happens again.”
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 Speaker John A. Boehner.
When Rep. Paul D. Ryan next took the gavel, he initially pushed for a change to the rule before backing away from it. After Ryan stepped down from the speakership and Congress in 2019, he said he felt he had too much power as speaker, particularly over omnibus spending legislation.
When McCarthy won the vote to be speaker in January, Gaetz and other holdouts said there was a commitment to “regular order,” or considering all 12 annual spending bills individually rather than what has typically been an omnibus package. The process was intended to give members a chance to amend and cut government spending instead of having one big take-it-or-leave-it package.
“I don’t think voting against Kevin McCarthy is chaos. I think $33 trillion in debt is chaos. I think that facing a $2.2 trillion annual deficit is chaos,” Gaetz said during the floor debate on the move to oust McCarthy. “I think that not passing single-subject spending bills is chaos. I think the fact that we have been governed in this country since the mid-1990s by continuing resolution and omnibus is chaos.”
On the other side of the Capitol, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said at a news conference Wednesday that he hopes whoever the next speaker is gets rid of the motion to vacate, which is a “hammerlock of dysfunction.”
“I think it makes the speaker’s job impossible, and the American people expect us to have a functioning government,” McConnell said.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who has criticized the way Congress has handled government spending, called McConnell’s comments on the motion to vacate “a compelling reason why the House should NOT give up the motion-to-vacate rule.”
Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., who joined the Senate this year after five terms in the House, said the circumstances around McCarthy’s ouster have upset the dynamic of the House.
Individual members were able to oust a well-liked leader who was supported by most of the caucus and who was not “scandal-ridden or a complete butt to work with,” Mullin said.
Unless there is a “consensus candidate” who can bring the caucus together and force a change to the chamber’s rules, a handful of members will still have the power to overthrow a speaker who must work with Democrats on must-pass legislation.
“If I’m the next speaker, I’m changing the rules. Because the first time he can he has to make a decision to govern — which is what Kevin had to do, he had to make a decision to govern — they can do the same thing to him,” Mullin said.
Former Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., said Republicans “voted to create dysfunction” when they adopted the one-member motion-to-vacate rule. Murphy was one of the members of the Problem Solvers Caucus that negotiated a series of rules changes in 2019 when Democrats took power, which included a higher threshold for the motion to vacate.
That 2019 rules package, which they dubbed “Break the Gridlock,” also included a consensus calendar that allowed bills with 290 co-sponsors a floor vote, changes to discharge petitions, committee markups and Rules Committee consideration. Murphy said that package gave the speaker stability while also potentially allowing consideration of more bipartisan bills.
She contrasted that with the deal McCarthy made in 2023 that “traded away” the stability then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., enjoyed.
“For Kevin McCarthy, giving up the changes that we made in the motion to vacate was the beginning of the end for him,” Murphy said. “I think it’s unclear if the next speaker is going to be able to yield a very different outcome if that rule isn’t changed.”
Matthew Green, a political science professor at Catholic University of America, said at an event Wednesday hosted by the American Enterprise Institute think tank that the next step for the House is unclear.
“I think we are at this key decision point where the House, and the Republican House particularly, can go in any number of directions,” Green said. “We’re in a real transition period right now. It is not just a transition from one speaker to another.”
Former Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., said during the AEI event that he did not think there would be any “formal” changes to the powers the speaker possesses but there would be plenty of chaos in the House in the near term.
Lipinski said that, particularly since Republicans gained control of the chamber in 2010, a significant portion of the party has been more interested in messaging than governing.
“It’s a fundamental problem inside the Republican Party that has not been solved,” Lipinski said.