WASHINGTON - A contingent of far-right House Republicans are plotting an attempt to remove Kevin McCarthy as House speaker as early as next week, a move that would throw the chamber into further disarray in the middle of a potential government shutdown, according to four people familiar with the effort who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private talks.
Members of the far-right faction of the party are coalescing around nominating a member of McCarthy’s leadership team, Rep. Tom Emmer (Minn.), to be the next speaker if they can successfully oust McCarthy, according to those people. The members think Emmer is more attuned to their concerns and will better deliver conservative results.
The effort to replace McCarthy with one of his top deputies is the latest example of the acrimony and chaos that has upended the Republican conference this year and has Congress on the path to a government shutdown. Many within the GOP conference, including McCarthy allies, have long warned that McCarthy’s leadership would be tested during the fight to fund the government because of promises he made to far-right lawmakers in January to win the speaker’s gavel.
Emmer, according to two people who have spoken to him, has not indicated whether he would want to pursue the speakership or support a measure to oust McCarthy.
“I fully support Speaker McCarthy. He knows that and I know that,” Emmer told The Washington Post in a statement. “I have zero interest in palace intrigue. End of discussion.”
It’s unclear if far-right members will move forward with the plan or if the plotting is simply a warning to McCarthy about the seriousness of their displeasure. But some members have emphasized that removing McCarthy is “inevitable” and “imminent” and they are calculating the right time to try to do it.
One lawmaker said they want McCarthy to leave the speakership with “some grace,” meaning that a motion would happen if the government shuts down and McCarthy has exhausted all options to keep it open with only Republican votes.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a consistent McCarthy foil, has twice on the House floor, as recently as this week, threatened to bring up a “motion to vacate,” which begins the process that could lead to McCarthy’s ouster. But those familiar with the plans say Gaetz could move as early as Sunday, triggering a 48-hour process to hold a vote.
The disaffection with McCarthy among hard-liners has grown even as he has consistently placated them, and even as the government heads toward a shutdown. Hard-liners say McCarthy wasted months of valuable time over the summer by refusing to negotiate spending bills that address their demands, even though many of these members have prevented movement on several bills funding the government for the full year.
“He’s done some good things, but I’m tired of messaging votes,” one House Freedom Caucus member said.
Multiple lawmakers said they have had conversations with Emmer about their plan to position him as the replacement for McCarthy.
“(I told Emmer) that his name has been floated around as a replacement if Kevin falters,” said a Republican House lawmaker who had high praise for Emmer. The lawmaker said he has spoken to Emmer twice about replacing McCarthy, including as recently as Tuesday.
Emmer has been a key ally to McCarthy, a person close to Emmer said, pointing to his working “around-the-clock” to find votes for McCarthy’s election as speaker, as well as over the past several weeks, doing meetings and phone calls with members to unlock the House floor and find an agreement on government funding. He also worked closely with McCarthy to win Republican seats as chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee over the past two election cycles.
“Even with a slim majority, House Republicans have been able to deliver major wins for the American people, and Whip Emmer’s vote counting has been integral to those efforts,” McCarthy spokesperson Mark Bednar said in a statement.
Earlier in the month, as rumors swirled about possible efforts to oust him as speaker, McCarthy grew angry in a closed-door caucus. He challenged his rivals, saying, “You guys think I’m scared of a motion to vacate. Go f---ing ahead and do it. I’m not scared.”
Several McCarthy allies have privately suggested they will hold firm in support of McCarthy and would only support another candidate if McCarthy were to step back and indicate a successor.
McCarthy has a proven record of fundraising, generating hundreds of millions of dollars for Republican House races and far more than other House Republican leaders combined, a person familiar with Republican campaign strategies noted, a data point that would almost certainly be considered by lawmakers if his speakership is put on the line.
But keeping McCarthy in the post could face long odds: Democrats would need to vote in support of McCarthy to overcome the more than a dozen far-right members who probably would vote to remove him. Jumping in to save McCarthy would almost certainly require he concede a significant amount to Democrats.
Ultimately, Democrats will decide McCarthy’s fate since a motion to vacate needs the support of a majority of the House — 218 lawmakers — to succeed. Democrats have not yet determined whether they’ll protect McCarthy’s speakership or wash their hands of him, according to multiple people familiar with the leadership’s thinking.
“I have no interest in what is happening in terms of the GOP civil war, zero interest,” Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) said. “That is not our business. Our business is to focus on the well-being of the American people.”
Other Republican lawmakers expressed shock hearing hard-liners are moving toward choosing a McCarthy replacement. People who are often in the room with McCarthy and Emmer say their relationship is strong and it would be shocking if Emmer were to turn on McCarthy, who values loyalty.
It has long been noted by Republicans that tensions exist between McCarthy and his presumed successor in the leadership hierarchy, Majority Leader Steve Scalise (La.). Though Scalise is significantly more conservative than McCarthy, which the House Freedom Caucus wants, they see him as part of the “establishment” and someone who has remained in GOP leadership for too long.
Still, some hard-liners and members of the House Freedom Caucus — which has never fully trusted McCarthy because it views him as insufficiently conservative and void of policy principles — continue to discuss behind closed doors triggering the motion to oust McCarthy and working to install their preferred leader.
Emmer won a three-way race for whip in November after Republicans took the House majority. He won despite a worse-than-expected outcome in the midterms. Republicans won the majority by five seats and Emmer had led the National Republican Congressional Committee, overseeing the broad effort to elect House Republicans.
The Freedom Caucus and HFC-adjacent members helped push Emmer over the top during the whip race. Emmer is close with Reps. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and Gaetz, who brought the far-right faction into his fold.
Biggs is championing Emmer should Republicans need to pick a new speaker, multiple members say, but it is far from guaranteed that Emmer would win the support of 218 Republicans.
In his role as House majority whip, Emmer is responsible for counting votes. He consistently holds small group meetings with members to gauge their needs and interests to try to find 218 Republican votes to pass legislation in the razor-thin majority.
In recent weeks, Emmer, more than McCarthy, has convened members across the ideological spectrum to hash out differences on spending measures.
Yet there is frustration in some corners of the party over Emmer’s short tenure in leadership, with some describing him as ineffective. Republicans have lost three procedural votes, known as rules, in as many months, some of which were a shock to leadership.
But the whip team has not traditionally whipped rule votes because the party is expected to stick together on the simple procedural motion. Before this year, only eight rule votes had failed in the previous two decades.
After the last rule vote failed, there was grumbling among GOP lawmakers that they would not be in such a narrow majority had Emmer, as NRCC chairman, done a better job of ensuring a larger majority that could have canceled out far-right holdout votes.
The notion of removing McCarthy from the speaker role through a motion to vacate has been an underlying threat since McCarthy was elected to the post in January after 15 rounds of voting.
If the far-right faction actually forces a vote against McCarthy, it will be equal parts historic and chaotic.
The motion to vacate was officially used just once, in 1910, when the speaker, Joe Cannon, created it and told his allies to force the vote so he could demonstrate his power. He won by about 40 votes.
No one has ever failed such a vote, and staffers with parliamentary expertise have been studying what would happen if McCarthy was the first. Some aides and former aides suggested that continuity-of-government provisions put in place after the 2001 terrorist attacks created a private list of those who would become acting speaker in case of a vacancy, but that person would have limited powers.
Aside from basic administrative duties, the temporary speaker’s main role would be to oversee the election of a new speaker.
All legislative business would come to a halt - a serious impediment to reopening the government if McCarthy is expelled during a shutdown and Republicans have a prolonged battle to select a new speaker.
In the mid-1990s another rebel GOP faction threatened to use it against Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), but the speaker snuffed out the coup attempt in advance. In 2015, with a potential vacate vote looming, John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) announced he would resign rather than put lawmakers through a contentious vote and having to rely on Democratic votes to stay in power.
When Democrats took control in 2019, they changed the motion-to-vacate rules to make it much more difficult to eject a speaker, putting Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) firmly in charge during the previous four years as speaker.
But once McCarthy could not get enough votes on his side of the aisle in January, he bargained away that safety net in return for a few votes from the right flank. Republicans returned the vacate rule to requiring just one lawmaker to force a vote on the resolution and a simple majority to oust McCarthy.
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Paul Kane contributed to this report.