WASHINGTON - The decision was always going to be his.
With a Democratic-led Senate ready to fund the government in a bipartisan fashion and a Democratic president in the White House, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) would ultimately have to make the determinative choice about whether to avert a government shutdown.
Having exhausted every option to fund the government with just conservative votes, McCarthy sided with Republicans who suggested he skirt a procedural hurdle that obstructionists have previously used against the conference and propose a bill that would appease Democrats enough to keep the government running.
That proposal became law. But it may come with a price: his job.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said Sunday that he is determined to try to oust McCarthy from his leadership position after McCarthy passed a stopgap measure to fund the government with Democratic support.
Gaetz told CNN’s “State of the Union” that he plans to introduce a measure to remove McCarthy sometime this week, marking a dramatic escalation of the long-simmering tensions between the men. Once he does so, the House will have 48 hours to vote on the matter.
“I think we need to rip off the Band-Aid. I think we need to move on with new leadership that can be trustworthy,” Gaetz said.
Hard-right obstructionists in the House GOP have made clear for weeks that they would try to oust McCarthy if he relied on Democrats to pass any funding legislation. Under the move Gaetz is planning, called a motion to vacate, a single person can force the House to consider removing the speaker. Such a motion has never succeeded before.
On multiple Sunday show appearances, Gaetz accused McCarthy of lying during the negotiations over the stopgap government funding talks, and of lying to the Republican conference in January during the lengthy speakership fight that saw him going through 15 rounds of House votes before being elected speaker.
“Look, the one thing everybody has in common is that nobody trusts Kevin McCarthy,” Gaetz told CNN. “He lied to Biden, he lied to House conservatives. He had appropriators marking to a different number altogether.”
McCarthy, Gaetz said, broke a promise made to hard-right conservatives during the speakership fight that the chamber would move to pass individual spending bills rather than bundling them all together. Gaetz also said McCarthy promised the conference 72 hours to read the bill, and that the budget would return to pre-covid spending levels.
McCarthy and Republicans have passed four appropriation bills thus far and plan to pass the remaining eight this month. While McCarthy did not give his conference 72 hours to review and vote on the stopgap bill to keep the government funded, his leadership team has followed that rule on a majority of bills passed this year.
“There is almost no promise he hasn’t violated,” Gaetz told ABC News’s “This Week.”
On Sunday morning, McCarthy was defiant when asked about Gaetz’s potential effort to remove him from his seat.
“I’ll survive. This is personal with Matt,” he told CBS News’s “Face the Nation.” “If he’s upset because he tried to push us in a shutdown, and I made sure government didn’t shut down, then let’s have that fight.” Despite McCarthy’s confidence; however, in interviews over the past week, a handful of Republicans indicated an openness to Gaetz’s move.
On Saturday night, both the House and Senate passed a “continuing resolution” that keeps the government funded through Nov. 17 and includes disaster relief funds, an extension of a federal flood-insurance program and reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration, but did not include additional aid for Ukraine.
Gaetz was one of six Republicans who never supported McCarthy in his fight to take the speaker’s gavel in January, at the beginning of the new congressional term. Those six members eventually voted “present” in the 15th round of voting, lowering the threshold needed for McCarthy’s victory.
But those Republicans and others on the far right have successfully blockaded efforts by the majority of House Republicans who have tried to govern under the constitutional constraints of having to pass bills with a Democratic-majority Senate and Democratic president.
On Sunday, some of those far-right Republicans appeared to welcome Gaetz’s approach. Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), a member of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, told Fox News that it was clear McCarthy is in “trouble.” Asked how he would vote on a motion to vacate, Donalds said, “I got to really think about that.”
“There are a lot of trust issues in my chamber right now,” he said.
Other Republicans who are critical of McCarthy’s leadership left the Capitol on Saturday night declining to say how they would vote when Gaetz brings up the motion, but hinted that they have given it some thought.
“I vote [with] my conscience,” Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) said in an interview. “I’m over it. We’re going to lose our country.”
Speaking to ABC News, Gaetz said he plans to file his motion to vacate over and over.
“I might not have him the first time, but I might have him before the 15th ballot,” he said. “I will continue to pursue this objective.”
Gaetz, however, said he did not have a replacement for McCarthy in mind.
A majority of the GOP conference still staunchly supports McCarthy and would vote to keep him as their speaker. Rep. Jason T. Smith (R-Mo.) told Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures” host Maria Bartiromo on Sunday that Gaetz would need more than 200 Democrats to join him to remove McCarthy “because more than 200 Republicans are 100 percent behind Speaker McCarthy.”
And Rep. Michael Lawler (R-N.Y.), one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the conference, told “This Week” that Gaetz’s decision is a “diatribe of delusional thinking.” Lawler noted that while Gaetz is complaining about how slowly the House has moved to advance appropriations bills, the Florida Republican himself is one of the reasons the process has been so drawn out.
“By putting this motion to vacate on the floor, you know what Matt Gaetz is going to do? He’s going to delay the ability to complete that work over the next 45 days,” Lawler said. “And just like he and some of my colleagues did during the past three weeks, they delayed the process by voting down the rules, violating our conference rules. They delayed the process by refusing to come to an agreement within the conference.”
With Republicans holding such a narrow majority in the House, if more than five hard-liners vote in favor of deposing McCarthy, Republicans will need Democrats to help overcome that margin. But their help, if it is even given, would come at a significant price.
Knowing the role they play in this scenario, House Democrats are beginning to discuss how they would handle a potential challenge to McCarthy’s speakership, as their participation - or lack thereof - will determine whether he remains as speaker of the House.
Multiple people familiar with the private conversations have said that no plan is final and that McCarthy’s own last-minute scramble to force consideration of a clean short-term spending bill that averted a government shutdown angered many Democrats.
Gaetz said he expects Democrats to protect McCarthy.
“If at this time next week, Kevin McCarthy is still speaker of the House, it will be because the Democrats bailed them out and he can be their speaker, not mine,” Gaetz said on “This Week.”
The No. 2 person in the House Democratic Caucus, Rep. Katherine M. Clark (Mass.), told members in a note Sunday to be ready for a motion to oust McCarthy as speaker “at any time, including Monday.” She did not indicate any preference in how to vote, adding that “we will have a Caucus wide discussion on how to address the motion to best meet the needs of the American people.”
Some moderate Democrats signaled that they might help McCarthy because they distrust Gaetz more.
“Every time we all work together, he loses his mind,” Rep. Greg Landsman (D-Ohio) said in a statement. “He doesn’t want the center left and center right to work together because he has to be the center of attention. When we do, he creates chaos to grab attention back. Matt Gaetz has no interest in governing. This is all about TV appearances for him.”
There is, however, little love lost for McCarthy, whom Democrats loathe and regard as untrustworthy. It would be an extremely high bar complete with concessions that he, at a bare minimum, change how he is running the House.
“Before we save his a--, what do we get?” one Democratic lawmaker said. “We’re not going to provide the votes just because we’re just nice guys.”
However, some Democrats welcomed the idea of helping Gaetz oust McCarthy. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), one of the prominent progressives in the House, said she would “absolutely” vote to end his speakership.
“I think Kevin McCarthy is a very weak speaker,” she told CNN on Sunday. “He clearly has lost control of his caucus. . . . It’s not up to Democrats to save Republicans from themselves.”
Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.), chair of the New Democrat Coalition, a large caucus made up of pragmatic Democrats, said in an interview that “the deep distrust for McCarthy in the caucus, the legislative record of his conference, and the baseless impeachment are reasons it would be a big lift for any House Democrat to vote to save him.”
Separately, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) - McCarthy’s predecessor as House speaker - said Gaetz’s move against McCarthy “is just not about the budget, it’s about a values debate.”
“You’re wasting your time on that guy because he has no sway in the House of Representatives except to get on TV and to raise money on the internet,” Pelosi said Sunday on CNN.
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) has built a significant amount of trust and goodwill among his fellow Democrats and he is unlikely to use that political capital to save McCarthy, say multiple people close to the situation.
Any asks Jeffries makes of his party members to salvage McCarthy’s speakership would have to be viewed as a significant win by Democrats.
Some of the demands being floated among Democrats include funding the government at levels previously agreed to by McCarthy and President Biden, the reallocation of the number of Democrats compared to Republicans on committees and a more equal percentage of earmarks in appropriations bills; Democrats say they have received a significantly lower percentage of earmarks than Republicans.
More drastic concessions could mean asking McCarthy to skirt hard-line conservatives in his conference and form a coalition government where McCarthy governs to the center.
But few Democrats trust that McCarthy would stand by any commitments he pledges. And some Democrats also worry that more chaos would ensue if McCarthy is removed as speaker. They also fret that a potential replacement could be worse than McCarthy - or there could be no replacement at all.
“Democrats don’t intend to telegraph their vote on a motion to vacate, to give Jeffries the best negotiating position,” said one House Democrat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to openly discuss internal dynamics.
One idea that has been widely discussed among Democrats is a “motion to table” the provision under consideration, which would prevent them from having to play a direct role in voting for or against McCarthy for speaker.
Another possibility is that a group of institutionalist Democrats could vote “present,” which would lower the 218-vote threshold needed to pass any measure through a majority. Such a move would allow Republicans to determine McCarthy’s fate within their ranks.
Some Republicans expect several Democrats to vote present out of goodwill, after McCarthy changed his weeks-long posture of passing only conservative bills through his ranks and introduced the short-term funding bill that passed Saturday.
“He’s being punished for putting a bipartisan bill on the floor to keep our government open,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) said in an interview Saturday. “So you either believe that that activity should be rewarded or punished.”
Democrats say their support is not guaranteed, and McCarthy would need to formally ask their caucus for help. Even moderate Democrats who are most likely to cross the aisle say they would not vote present unless McCarthy makes a direct request for help and pledges to make the House run in a more bipartisan fashion.
If not, “They’re going to vote him out,” said one Democratic aide who is familiar with how moderates are thinking.
On Sunday, after delivering remarks marking the passage of the continuing resolution, Biden avoided questions over whether Democrats should save McCarthy if Gaetz pushes a motion to vacate. The president simply said he hopes “this experience for the speaker has been one of personal revelation.”
“I’m not being facetious,” he added.
McCarthy’s ultimate decision to move past trying to appease hard-liners and listen to a pragmatic set of Republicans who suggested forgoing their colleagues’ votes to instead rely on Democrats to fund the government was seen by some Republicans and Democrats as one way that the House could function moving forward.
Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) warned his fellow Republicans not to lose sight of what they’ve been working toward. He said that if McCarthy is ousted, that would eat up valuable time trying to fund the government for the entire year.
“We can either start Monday to pass a single-subject appropriations bill and secure the border, or we can start the circus,” Armstrong said Saturday.
Laura Reiley and Patrick Marley contributed to this report.