Congress just avoided a shutdown. Kevin McCarthy’s fight is just beginning.

by | Oct 1, 2023

Vote For Speaker Of The House Stretches Into Fourth Day
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

McCarthy, Matt Gaetz, and the motion to vacate, explained

Congress finally managed to squeeze out a deal to fund the government for 45 days on Saturday, but the eleventh-hour resolution is already causing trouble for Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy.

Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida indicated Sunday that he will call for a motion to vacate — a vote to toss McCarthy from leadership for passing a continuing resolution that Gaetz says violates the terms of McCarthy’s speakership deal. For the rest of the country, a fight over the speakership takes away from the work of passing a long-term funding deal, as well as negotiating the future of aid to Ukraine.

Gaetz has led the charge against McCarthy’s leadership since January, when Gaetz and a crew of right-wing holdouts refused to vote for McCarthy until he made major concessions to the group — including restoring the ability of any one member of the House of Representatives to call for McCarthy’s removal, among other promises. Now, the question for McCarthy — assuming the motion to vacate forges ahead — is whether or not he’ll be able to get the support he needs from Democrats to retain the speakership, while also retaining the support of more moderate Republicans.

That might not be so simple, as McCarthy seems to be capable of frustrating different critical factions while trying to please everyone. While Congress has avoided a shutdown that was seen as all but inevitable until the legislation actually passed, some Democrats are frustrated about the lack of support for Ukraine written into that legislation, while Republicans — especially Gaetz’s right-wing group — are furious that their proposed funding cuts didn’t make it through in the final legislation.

That puts McCarthy in a tenuous position, potentially fighting for his job, despite the fact that he averted a government shutdown. What’s more, proposing a motion to vacate distracts Congress from the crucial work of funding the government for the next year — something they have just six weeks to do before the continuing resolution runs out.

Here’s how McCarthy got into this situation

Back in January, McCarthy went through a grueling 15 rounds of votes to win his speakership. Because Republicans have such a narrow majority in the House — 221 Republicans to 212 Democrats — the defection of 19 extreme right-wing Republicans including Gaetz, Rep. Lauren Beobert of Colorado, and Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, represented a serious problem for McCarthy’s ambition to finally take the speaker’s gavel.To win over his naysayers, McCarthy ultimately agreed to a deal that left him vulnerable to an ouster as Jacobs wrote in January:

“Part of their demands include efforts to weaken the office of speaker generally and enable rank-and-file members of the House — and, in particular, rank-and-file members of the House GOP — to have more influence over legislation. In recent years, speakers from both parties have centralized more and more authority in their own hands. This has meant members have less opportunity to introduce amendments, that most key legislation is negotiated by leadership in both parties, and it is presented for a vote in a handful of comprehensive bills such as the 2022 social spending bill Democrats dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act.”

Those who want McCarthy gone all dislike him for their own reasons, from the political to the personal. Gaetz in particular has accused McCarthy of breaking his pledges to the right-wing group that ultimately delivered his speakership win, particularly surrounding the debt ceiling debate back in May.

Much like avoiding a government shutdown, passing legislation to avert a default on the US’s debts was critical for the economy and for the government’s ability to serve its function. But for Gaetz in particular, any effort McCarthy makes to work with Democrats seems to renege on the January bargain, as Politico pointed out.

“Speaker McCarthy made an agreement with House conservatives in January and since then he’s been in brazen, repeated material breach of that agreement,” Gaetz told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” Sunday. “This agreement that he made with Democrats to really blow past a lot of the spending guardrails we set up is a last straw.”

The stakes are high — both for McCarthy and for the government

Once the legislation passed the House on Saturday — mostly with Democratic support — Gaetz tried to get the floor, ostensibly to call for a motion to vacate, but was rebuffed. The motion to vacate will come this week, Gaetz has promised, and he could be counting on quite a bit of Democratic support, particularly in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, as Politico Playbook pointed out Sunday. But that’s far from a guarantee that McCarthy will lose the speakership, particularly if Jeffries doesn’t convince the entire Democratic caucus to vote against McCarthy. Furthermore, there are plenty of GOP members who would vote to keep McCarthy in power, denying Gaetz’s effort the majority it would need to remove McCarthy from office.

Gaetz has thus far remained mum as to who he sees as a viable replacement for McCarthy, particularly given that Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the second most powerful Republican in the House, is being treated for cancer.

“The problem is — and this is the same problem we saw with the 15 ballots at the beginning of the year — it is my belief that there is nobody at this point in time that has the majority votes in order to become speaker other than Kevin McCarthy,” Rep. Morgan Griffith, a Freedom Caucus member from Virginia, told Politico on Friday, though Majority Whip Tom Emmer’s name has been floated, the Washington Post reported Thursday.

But the stakes for the government are significant, too; despite opposition from both the right and the left, McCarthy has managed to push through agreements on the debt ceiling and a continuing resolution, two significant challenges with serious, long-ranging national consequences. Those deals are far from perfect, but both seemed impossible until they were actually done.

Though 45 days may sound like plenty of time to pass a spending bill, it’s not, particularly given the major partisan divide over government spending. Most Republicans, and especially the hard-right Republicans like Gaetz, are demanding spending cuts across the board, as well as much more stringent border controls, at odds with most Democrats. Anything that distracts from coming to an agreement over a full year of government funding increases risk of a shutdown come November 17, when the current deal expires.

As far as funding to Ukraine is concerned, most members of Congress support sustained aid and Senate leadership from both parties indicated Saturday that the Senate will work to protect that funding. Democrats, including Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who held up the Senate vote on Saturday’s funding bill over Ukraine aid, maintain that support against Russia’s illegal invasion and occupation is critical to defend democracy against an authoritarian foe.

Whatever happens for McCarthy, he’ll likely continue to find himself beholden to interests other than his own, whether that comes from his own party or not. And even if he survives this motion, it’s possible, given Gaetz’s animosity and promises to take McCarthy down, that he’ll face another challenge in a matter of time.

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