Politics

The next speaker’s big challenge: Avoiding McCarthy’s fate

Anyone who hopes to become the next speaker must first attempt to settle a raging debate inside the GOP conference: Should one House member maintain the power to pull another Matt Gaetz?

A growing number of Republicans, led by allies of Kevin McCarthy, are demanding major reforms to prevent a rerun of the historic ouster that Gaetz (R-Fla.) pulled off — using a power that McCarthy handed to his right flank to win the gavel in the first place. Unless the House limits the ability of one member to force a vote on booting the speaker, these GOP lawmakers say, it simply can’t function.

“My vote is dependent on how they’re going to make sure that the same thing that happened [to McCarthy] doesn’t happen again,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), an ally of the former speaker who’s among the loudest advocates for an overhaul of the ouster powers.

Before Tuesday, the so-called motion to vacate hadn’t been used in 113 years. Armstrong argued that it won’t take as long for the next deployment now that Gaetz has used it against McCarthy: “In case we haven’t noticed, we have a lot of members who like the attention.”

But that push for change is running into the harsh reality that any candidate for speaker is going to need support from the party’s right flank — and those members are unlikely to relinquish the power that allows one back-bencher to force a vote on firing the top leader. While a few Democrats say they’re willing to deliver the votes needed to weaken the motion to vacate, their cooperation could instead doom the effort entirely within a GOP that has no appetite for bipartisanship.

It all adds up to a no-win situation for House Republicans. Even as McCarthy allies warn they won’t support any new speaker without changes, some Republicans are privately warning no reform will have the votes to get through the GOP conference. Both of their top contenders — House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) — are intentionally refraining from choosing a side.

A third speaker contender, Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), said he supported preserving the one-member power to oust the House leader but added that he would follow the will of the conference: “It was that way for 200 years. Only Pelosi changed it, to protect herself — to make bad policy.”

For Scalise or Jordan to get to 218 votes, they’ll need near-unanimous support from a House GOP that’s been trending rightward for years. Moderate members — even those whose fate will likely determine House control next year — have typically steered clear of hardball demands. So without depriving their votes from any speaker candidate who doesn’t cut a reform deal, McCarthy’s allies will likely have scant leverage on the matter.

McCarthy lieutenants like Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) argue that newly emboldened conservatives are putting any future speaker, even Jordan, the Freedom Caucus co-founder, in an impossible position without changing the rules.

Plenty “of great people that are in this conference … have said, ‘Hell no, I wouldn’t even consider that job, because it’s going to be a complete failure.’ And so that needs to be addressed,” Graves said.

Any conversations about an anti-Gaetz rules change will need to happen quickly. The House GOP is set to meet Tuesday for a closed-door “candidate forum” with Scalise, Jordan and perhaps Hern, if he follows through with a run. Republicans then plan to hold an internal secret-ballot vote on Wednesday to select their choice for speaker.

Some members have argued that any speaker election should wait until the conference figures out a way to avoid a repeat of Tuesday’s McCarthy ouster. Battleground-seat Republicans are particularly keen on avoiding more disruptions, and reform of the motion to vacate is the top concern for the more centrist Main Street Caucus, according to three people who addressed its priorities on condition of anonymity.

When Jordan spoke to that caucus on Thursday, he reiterated what he’s said publicly: That he is open to changing the rule but only with 218 Republicans on board, according to two people familiar with the remarks.

“Most of our conference is more interested in making sure the motion to vacate rule can no longer be exercised by a single member,” said Rep. John Duarte (R-Calif.), a member of the Main Street Caucus. “Jim Jordan and Steve Scalise are both credible candidates for speaker. The important thing for many of us is that we get back to work.”

Of course, the gambit has its share of defenders. Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), a Jordan ally, said “Congress ought not fear the MTV. The MTV allows the debate and resolution.”

And after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took a rare stand on a House topic to call for the motion’s abolition, McConnell critic Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) cited those remarks as “compelling reason” not to get rid of the tool.

The battle over House GOP rules also comes as many rank-and-file members hanker for Gaetz to face consequences after his rebellion.

The GOP conference must decide “what accountability there will be,” Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.) said.

Some Republicans privately argue that working with Democrats is a viable path to rules reform. But GOP unfriendliness to any kind of Democratic side deal means that such negotiations would only wound a speaker hopeful’s drive to get to 218 Republican votes, with only four to lose.

Despite the lingering animosity among centrists in both parties after Democrats voted unanimously to toss McCarthy this week, several moderate Democrats are floating their support for potential changes to the motion to vacate.

First-term Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.) said in an interview he’d defer to his party leadership but believed the threshold needed to be raised from a single lawmaker: “It needs to be changed from one. We can’t have history twice in the same year.”

Democrats from the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), had pushed for a revamp of the speaker-ousting move when Democrats held power in 2019 — one that would essentially limit its use to party leaders.

But it’s hard to see House Republicans taking those lawmakers up on their interest in changes when the GOP’s campaign arm is singling out Democratic centrists who opposed McCarthy. Democratic moderates say they had reached out to the GOP but never got a serious response.

Another battleground-seat Democrat, Ohio Rep. Greg Landsman, said: “The extremists were already running the show, because they had this motion to vacate grenade in their hand.”

“And then they used it,” the Problem Solvers member continued. “Until it goes away, they can put the pin back and use it again and again and again.”

Meredith Lee Hill, Daniella Diaz and Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.

Any one Republican still has the power to eject the House leader. It’s a problem that only some in the GOP want to solve.  

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