WASHINGTON — Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., the Donald Trump ally and conservative bomb-thrower who has been a nagging thorn in leadership’s side, filed a resolution Monday to force a vote to overthrow his political nemesis, Kevin McCarthy, as speaker of the House.
The House must now vote on whether to keep McCarthy on as speaker. It has until Wednesday.
Speaking to reporters on the steps of the Capitol, a beaming Gaetz predicted he has the votes to oust McCarthy — as long as Democrats don’t move to save the speaker.
“I have enough Republicans where, at this point next week, one of two things will happen: Kevin McCarthy won’t be the speaker of the House, or he’ll be the speaker of the House working at the pleasure of the Democrats. And I’m at peace with either result, because the American people deserve to know who governs them,” Gaetz said.
During the past two weeks, Gaetz had issued a specific warning to McCarthy, saying he would try to oust him as speaker if he brought a short-term government funding bill to the floor that passed with help from Democrats.
True to his word, Gaetz made the motion to vacate Monday, just two days after McCarthy put a so-called clean continuing resolution, or CR, on the floor to avert a government shutdown, passing it with 209 Democratic votes and 125 Republican votes.
The House floor is normally loud and boisterous. But it was absolutely quiet as Gaetz stood up, buttoned his jacket, approached the well of the House and addressed the chamber Monday evening to announce the motion.
Asked by Rep. Jake Ellzey, R-Texas, who was presiding at the time, what his resolution was about, Gaetz replied: "Declaring the office of speaker of the House of Representatives to be vacant."
When he finished after about a minute, there was no reaction from the gathered Democrats or the Republicans as he walked away up the aisle.
If all 212 Democrats voted to remove McCarthy, Gaetz would need just four other Republicans to oust him. A handful of conservatives, including Bob Good, R-Va., Eli Crane, R-Ariz., and Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., said they would join Gaetz's effort.
Other conservatives, like Rep. Wesley Hunt, R-Texas, said they were keeping an "open mind," while Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., said that he was torn by the decision and that most of his constituents “are saying vacate."
"Well, it's between two things for me. It's between voting against my friend, Kevin McCarthy, and voting my conscience," Burchett said. "And that's kind of where I'm at."
After he dropped the resolution, Gaetz said he hasn’t cut a deal with Democrats to get rid of McCarthy, even though he has spoken to many of them privately.
"I have made no deal with Democrats, because I believe that Democrats should vote against Kevin McCarthy for free. It's Kevin McCarthy who's out there offering deals to Democrats," Gaetz told reporters. "I'm not offering anything, and I won't offer anything. ... When we stand here a week from now, I won't own Kevin McCarthy anymore; he won't belong to me. So if the Democrats want to adopt him, they can adopt him."
Defiant, McCarthy and his allies have lashed out at Gaetz, accusing him of seeking the limelight and holding a personal vendetta against McCarthy. They vowed to beat back Gaetz's efforts, and McCarthy has denied having any deal with Democrats to support him.
“So be it; bring it on,” McCarthy said Sunday on CBS News’ “Face the Nation.” “I’ll survive.”
Just minutes after Gaetz filed the motion, McCarthy repeated those remarks on X: "Bring it on."
Asked to react to Gaetz’s move, a GOP House member pulled out his phone and showed NBC News a fundraising pitch by Gaetz.
Said a McCarthy ally, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jason Smith, R-Mo.: "The only way that the motion to vacate can be successful is if 200-plus Democrats join with him, because 200-plus Republicans are adamantly opposed to his motion to vacate."
Progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Gaetz "are on the same page," he said.
Gaetz’s action comes after months of public tangling with McCarthy, who he says failed to live up to promises he made to conservatives during the speaker’s fight in January to significantly cut spending. In fact, it was Gaetz who led a band of 20 conservative rebels to oppose McCarthy for the speaker job, leading to 15 grueling rounds of voting before McCarthy finally triumphed.
By filing a so-called motion to vacate, Gaetz has triggered a future floor vote over removing McCarthy as speaker, though it’s unclear exactly when that vote might happen. McCarthy allies almost certainly will try to delay or thwart a vote by “tabling” the motion and referring it to a committee, but that might not work.
Gaetz's resolution "declaring the Office of Speaker vacant” is privileged, meaning it takes precedence over other House business. Under House rules, privileged matters must be considered within two legislative days.
While he conceded he might not remove McCarthy on the first try, Gaetz vowed to keep filing resolutions, perhaps daily, to oust him. Every vote will weaken McCarthy, he predicted.
"This first vote will be my floor, not my ceiling," Gaetz said. "And I think that as we have more votes later, numbers will likely grow."
Conservative Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., said moments after Gaetz filed the motion that he thought it was a "bad idea," though he said Gaetz "probably does" have at least five votes to remove McCarthy.
“I don’t support the motion to vacate,” he said, noting that he’s a rare Republican who filed the motion to overthrow Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in 2015. Massie said Gaetz has fewer grievances against McCarthy.
“We’re going to find out by the end of the week if this is sustainable,” he said.
Gaetz’s motion puts House Democrats in a political pickle given the GOP's razor-thin 221-212 majority. Democrats will have to decide whether to vote with McCarthy foes to topple him or side with McCarthy allies to bail him out.
But there has been little goodwill between Democrats and McCarthy, who criticized and then defended Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, reneged on a debt and budget deal with President Joe Biden and recently launched an impeachment inquiry into Biden.
After Gaetz filed the motion, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said he’s a “hard no” on rescuing McCarthy and encouraged colleagues to follow suit.
“Democrats should think long and hard about this. There is absolutely no upside to preserving Kevin McCarthy in the speakership. It’s an unstable speakership,” Connolly said. “Upon examination, I do not understand what any Democrat would find of redeeming value to allow him to persist in the speakership. We should not enable, aid or abet his continuation in office.”
Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., was more direct: “It’s not my problem to save his a--."
Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., a McCarthy ally, dismissed Gaetz’s “theatrics” as a distraction from the process of funding the government, predicting Democrats will reject Gaetz’s plan.
“I think that there are a number of people that care about the institution and see through — very much see through what this is,” Graves said. “And so I fully expect that you would have Republicans and Democrats simply do what’s right.”