The day after House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s astonishing capitulation that allowed Democrats to once more save the day and keep the government funded, Rep. Matt Gaetz was in front of the cameras promising that he would move to oust McCarthy this week. It’s not clear how much support the Florida man has among the other hard-liners in the Republican conference, but it could be a dozen or more, according to House conservatives. That means McCarthy’s fate is absolutely in Democrats’ hands. He can survive only if Democrats help him, and as of now, they’re not inclined to do that.
President Joe Biden isn’t going to go out of his way to help, telling reporters that it’s up to House Democratic leadership to decide if they want to bail McCarthy out again. Biden then turned the screws on McCarthy with a direct statement telling McCarthy to step up on funding for Ukraine, which was left out of the stopgap government funding bill.
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries remains noncommittal. Last week, he told reporters his team hadn’t “given any thought to how to handle a hypothetical motion to vacate, because we are entirely focused on making sure that we avoid this extreme MAGA Republican shutdown.” On Sunday, Minority Whip Katherine Clark sent a letter to all House Democrats, putting them on notice that as soon as Gaetz drops his motion on the floor, there will be a “Caucus wide discussion on how to address the motion to best meet the needs of the American people,” and telling them to keep their schedules flexible so they “may be present for these important votes should they occur.”
It’s likely many Democrats will take their lead from House Speaker-emerita Nancy Pelosi, who has reportedly warned Jeffries and other Democrats against helping McCarthy, saying he can’t be trusted. Her advice has been to make the Republicans figure this out on their own. Democrats will, however, have to do something, even if it’s doing nothing.
Here’s how it works: Once Gaetz makes the motion to vacate, leadership has two days to schedule a vote on it. The motion to vacate is a privileged resolution, which means that it doesn’t have to go through the Rules Committee to be scheduled, and that it has to be considered once it’s put on the floor. There is an option, called the “Question of consideration,” that could be used to kill the vote. Any member can call for it, and if a majority votes to kill Gaetz’s motion, that’s how they’d do it.
At that point, Democrats would have the option of helping Republicans by voting for the question and killing the motion to vacate, not voting or voting “present,” or voting against the question and with Gaetz. The problem for Republican leadership with this option is that it doesn’t stop Gaetz from coming back again and again with his motion to vacate. Because of that, Republican leadership might just decide to go ahead with the vote on McCarthy’s ouster.
So here’s where the potential dealmaking with Democrats comes in, and so far, Democrats are playing it pretty smart. Gaetz has reached out to members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and at least one of them—Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—says she’d “absolutely” vote for the motion to vacate.
However, she continued, there’s room for negotiation for Democratic help bailing McCarthy out. “I certainly don’t think that we would expect to see that unless there’s a real conversation between the Republican and Democratic caucuses and Republican Democratic leadership about what that would mean, but I don’t think we give up votes for free,” she said.
Another progressive, Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, told CNN that McCarthy has to be held to account for “pushing an extreme agenda and enabling extremists in his party” and therefore, “by refusing to support a motion to vacate, we are endorsing this extremism, and that is something that the residents in my district will not stand for. The American people are tired of the fact that the GOP is incapable of governing.”
That’s leverage—with enough of the progressives saying they’ll help Gaetz, McCarthy will need to negotiate. He’s opened the door on cutting a deal, saying, “I think this is about the institution. I think it's too important.” He’s also suggested that he’d consider changing the rules package to try to keep Gaetz from bringing the motion repeatedly.
Opening up the rules package could mean some significant changes to help the Democrats, including giving them additional seats on the powerful Rules Committee, where the Republicans have an outsized majority. They could argue for rules that allow more power-sharing.
That’s a start, since McCarthy has opened the door. But it’s not sufficient. Democrats should hold out for the maximum they can: funding for Ukraine, adherence to the budget agreement McCarthy and Biden agreed to earlier in the year, and ceasing the ridiculous Biden impeachment.
House Democrats saved the day on Saturday when 209 of them voted to keep the government operating. Just 126 Republicans stepped up to join them. Those competing numbers have to be thrown in McCarthy’s face every chance Democrats get—it’s leverage they have to use to the maximum.