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Is A “Motion To Vacate” Congress’ Next Crisis?

With the debt limit crisis addressed, Speaker Kevin McCarthy faces internal GOP dissatisfaction.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) notched an important bipartisan victory last week when he passed through the House, on a lopsided vote, a deal with the White House that avoided a federal default, and economic catastrophe, by raising the federal government’s statutory debt limit.

But there’s a rub: Speaker McCarthy did not rely on members of his own party to score the win. More House Democrats voted for the bill than House Republicans. While the GOP put up good numbers, nearly one-third of the caucus — 71 GOP lawmakers to be exact — opposed the Fiscal Responsibility Act.

Some Republicans lawmakers consider this act a betrayal — a betrayal for which they want revenge. And, as we’ve discussed before, revenge against the speaker is not difficult to get in the U.S. House these days. Under the agreement that made Rep. McCarthy Speaker of the House early this year, it only takes one disgruntled lawmaker to file a motion that, if successful, would oust him from the speakership.

Amidst the simmering tensions inside the House Republican Conference, let’s explore the “motion to vacate the chair.”

What Is A Motion To Vacate?

A motion to vacate is a parliamentary procedure in a legislative body under which a member or members of that body may propose that the presiding officer of that body be forced to step down. The procedure also is commonly referred to as a “motion to vacate the chair.”

As NBC News pointed out during January’s marathon voting session that ultimately led to Rep. McCarthy becoming speaker, the U.S. Constitution offers no advice or mechanism about how rank-and-file lawmakers can remove a speaker of the House once he or she is voted in. The document says House lawmakers should elect a speaker, but not who that speaker should be (which is why the speaker of the U.S. House, in fact, does not even have to be a sitting member of the House) or for what behavior they can be fired.

What the Constitution does say, as NBC News noted, is that House lawmakers can set whatever rules they want, for whatever matter it wants.

For the U.S. House, the origin of the motion to vacate rule goes back to a set of parliamentary procedures adopted by lawmakers in 1837 that said House lawmakers could remove the speaker. That rule did not specify the threshold for the number of lawmakers needed to make a motion to vacate. As such, it has been up to each new Congress (a new Congress is convened every two years) to decide what that threshold is.

As Newsweek has reported, this loose way of handling the motion to vacate lasted through 2018. (According to Politico, Speaker Paul Ryan opposed efforts to weaken the motion to vacate in 2016.) When Democrats took over the House in the 116th Congress in 2019, their rules package stipulated a motion to vacate required the support of “a party caucus or conference,” meaning a majority of Democrats or Republicans were needed to force a vote to remove the speaker. Democrats kept that interpretation in place in the 117th Congress, which they controlled and that sat from 2021 to 2022.

Then Republicans took over after the November 2022 midterm elections.

During his fight for the speakership this past January, Rep. McCarthy initially proposed lowering the threshold for a motion to vacate to a group of a mere five lawmakers of either party. That was not enough for the conservative-leaning lawmakers who were opposing his bid for the speakership, so Rep. McCarthy agreed to lower the number to one, which is why, today, a single lawmaker can file a motion to vacate.

Shortly after last week’s House vote on the Fiscal Responsibility Act, Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) became the first lawmaker to suggest that his Republican colleagues use the motion to vacate.

Has A U.S. House Speaker Ever Been Thrown Out Before?

As Newsweek has reported, “The motion to vacate has rarely been used.” In fact, lawmakers generally even have refrained from threatening to deploy it.

The first attempt to use the motion to vacate failed. As the law firm Thompson Coburn explained, “Rep. George Norris (D-Neb.) used a motion to vacate in 1910 against Speaker Joseph Cannon (R-Ill.), who was blocking legislative business from reaching the floor. That motion failed because Republicans would not risk the ascension of a Democratic speaker.” (Cannon was ousted from Republican House leadership the following year.)

NBC News said Republican laws considered using the motion to vacate against Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1997, but decided against it. As such, it took 105 years for House lawmakers to attempt another such coup.

According to Ballotpedia, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) filed a resolution in July 2015 formally declaring the office of the speaker of the House of Representatives “to be vacant.” The House never voted on the resolution, Ballotpedia said, but just the introduction of this resolution “is believed to have been consequential in that it represented a growing dissatisfaction with John Boehner’s tenure as Speaker among conservative House lawmakers such as Meadows and a group of about 40 legislators known as the House Freedom Caucus.”

Speaker Boehner stepped down just a few months later. Meadows would later become White House Chief of Staff.

Forbes reported that the Freedom Caucus also contemplated using the motion to vacate against Speaker Paul Ryan in 2016. Speaker Ryan told Politico at that point that a motion to vacate did not worry him because the speakership was “not a job I ever wanted in the first place. If I was dying to be speaker, I guess it probably would be a dagger over my head.”

The bluff, if it was one, worked. The Freedom Caucus ultimately did not use the motion to vacate against Speaker Ryan, who would serve in the role for another two and a half years.

Will Republicans Use The Motion To Vacate?

Despite Rep. Bishop’s call last week to use the motion to vacate against Speaker McCarthy, the reluctance to use this procedure may live on. A week after the House vote on the Fiscal Responsibility Act, cooler heads seemed to be prevailing.

Until last night.

As NBC News explained, “A band of 11 House conservative rabble-rousers on Tuesday took the rare step of joining all Democrats to block a pair of GOP bills to protect gas stoves to express their anger over the debt deal.” As a result, the procedural vote went down in a 206 to 220 vote, “stunning longtime lawmakers and reporters who have not seen a rule vote — a procedural measure typically widely supported by the majority party — go down in more than two decades.”

Keep in mind: Republicans have made the idea of banning gas stoves into an issue for the 2024 election. Presumably, the 11 Republicans who opposed the procedural vote actually support the bill that Speaker McCarthy was trying to bring to the floor.

Still, to flex their power, they voted against it. And that was not all.

After the vote, the lawmakers gathered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to speak out against Speaker McCarthy’s leadership. “We’re concerned that the fundamental commitments that allowed Kevin McCarthy to assume the speakership have been violated as a consequence of the debt limit deal,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) “The answer for us is to reassert House conservatives as the appropriate coalition partner for our leadership, instead of them making common cause with Democrats.” NBC noted, “The group warned that all Republican legislation could come to a standstill unless they resolve their internal issues.”

The debt ceiling fight may be done, but the drama is in the House of Representatives is not over — not by a long shot.

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