Washington, D.C. – October 3, 2023
Following a heated showdown on Capitol Hill regarding government funding, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is bracing himself for a significant leadership test. As the California Republican navigates this political turbulence, he faces a challenging landscape of vote math, substantial hurdles, and the looming specter of a conservative revolt aimed at unseating him from his role as speaker.
With a narrow majority in the House, House Republicans have left McCarthy with minimal maneuvering space, allowing hardline conservatives to wield outsized influence and apply pressure on the speaker.
To bolster his chances of retaining the speakership when January rolls around, McCarthy and his allies have already made several concessions to appease conservatives. A crucial concession was reinstating the ability of any House member to trigger a motion to vacate the speaker’s chair, a move that has the potential to initiate a House floor vote to remove the speaker from office.
Firebrand Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida has taken steps to initiate McCarthy’s removal from the top leadership post by introducing a motion to vacate the chair on the House floor. But what does this move signify, and how could it unfold?
Understanding a Motion to Vacate
In essence, a motion to vacate the chair serves as a resolution designed to declare the speakership as vacant and remove the current speaker. While it is a rarely used procedural tool, no House speaker has ever been ousted through this method. However, the mere threat of employing it can exert substantial pressure on a speaker.
The Process to Oust the Speaker
Any House member has the authority to file a resolution seeking the speaker’s removal. According to House precedent, such a resolution would be considered “privileged,” giving it priority over other legislative matters. Nevertheless, filing the resolution does not automatically trigger a vote. Instead, it initiates a political firestorm and a debate concerning the speaker’s future.
To force a vote, a member must announce their intent to present the resolution to remove the speaker on the House floor. This step compels the speaker to include the resolution on the legislative schedule within two legislative days, setting the stage for a floor showdown on the issue.
If a member introduces a resolution without announcing it on the floor, it does not compel a vote and serves more as a symbolic threat or a warning directed at the speaker.
The Threshold for Success
To succeed in removing the speaker through this process, a vote on the resolution to remove the speaker would require a majority vote. In essence, it would need the support of more than half of the House members present and voting.
However, even when a resolution is on course for a floor vote, it can still be preempted. For example, once the resolution is scheduled for debate, a motion to the table, essentially a vote to eliminate the resolution, can be offered. This motion also requires a simple majority to pass. If successful, the resolution to remove the speaker would be tabled, and no direct vote on the removal itself would occur.
Aftermath of a Successful Vote
Should a vote to remove the speaker succeed, House practice dictates that the speaker must submit a confidential list to the Clerk of individuals who would act as Speaker pro tempore in the event of a vacancy. The individual at the top of this list becomes the interim speaker. Their first task is to oversee the election of a new speaker, a process that may entail multiple rounds of voting until one candidate secures 218 votes or a majority of those present and voting.
While Matt Gaetz’s move to oust McCarthy presents a substantial political threat, several factors complicate the likelihood of such an effort successfully removing the speaker. According to Matthew Green, a professor of politics at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., removing a speaker through a privileged resolution is more challenging than it might appear.
Green explains, “It requires a pivotal bloc of members of the majority willing to withstand criticism and peer pressure from their partisan colleagues for introducing the resolution, bipartisan agreement that the incumbent speaker should be ousted, and a majority willing to select someone else to replace the speaker.”
As long as the threat remains potent, it can influence the speaker’s actions. However, if brought to the floor and defeated, it could diminish in its effectiveness.
In the realm of American political history, such a showdown carries significance, but the odds of a successful removal of the speaker remain uncertain.