Gaetz threatens historic vote to try and remove Speaker Kevin McCarthy: What happens next

The fight underlines fractures in the Republican conference.

Capitol Hill is set for another week of twists and turns -- having only just narrowly avoided a partial shutdown of the federal government -- as Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz says he plans to force a vote on whether to oust Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

In an appearance on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, Gaetz criticized McCarthy's handling of spending and budget fights since the GOP retook the House in January and claimed that McCarthy had violated promises he made in order to be chosen as speaker.

Gaetz said he would move this week to remove McCarthy in light of a temporary funding bill that McCarthy backed, and passed with majority Democratic support, late on Saturday to avert the government shutdown.

McCarthy, for his part, has projected confidence about his chances and suggested Gaetz is driven by a personal grudge, which Gaetz denies.

"Let's get over with it. Let's start governing," McCarthy said on CBS on Sunday.

When could Gaetz introduce his motion?

Sources say Gaetz has privately floated to aides and members that he could bring his motion to vacate as early as Monday -- but that is not firm and can easily slide.

Monday is a fly-in day for members with the House floor opening at noon and the first votes set for 6:30 p.m.

What is the 'motion to vacate' that Gaetz wants to use?

The motion is a special procedural move that allows any House member to trigger a vote to remove the speaker with a simple majority vote.

As part of his agreement to become speaker, McCarthy agreed to revise House rules to allow any single member to bring up a motion to vacate. But Republicans were divided on the issue, with Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas telling CNN at the time, "You can't govern with a gun to your head .... It makes us highly unstable."

Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, however, said the increased ability to replace the speaker was about responsibility: "There's nobody that goes to work every day that doesn’t have accountability."

Under Democrats, starting in 2019, a motion to vacate could only be introduced with the support of a majority of either party.

Since the threshold was lowered this year, the possibility of a motion to vacate has been raised at various points as McCarthy worked to wrangle parts of his conference -- or drew their ire, including over the debt ceiling deal with the White House.

PHOTO: House Freedom Caucus member Rep. Matt Gaetz arrives for a meeting of the Republican House caucus, Sept. 30, 2023 in Washington, DC.
House Freedom Caucus member Rep. Matt Gaetz arrives for a meeting of the Republican House caucus, Sept. 30, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Nathan Howard/Getty Images

What happens when the motion is introduced?

Once the House is back in session, Gaetz will have to rise on the floor, be recognized by the Republican presiding over the chamber and verbally introduce his motion to vacate the chair.

The House will have to take up the resolution within two legislative days. So if Gaetz introduces the motion on Monday, for example, the vote would need to take place by Wednesday.

The House could take a simple up-or-down vote on the resolution, in which case Gaetz will need a majority -- or 217 votes if everyone is present and voting, given two vacancies in the chamber -- to remove McCarthy.

The House could also take a procedural vote instead, such as voting to table Gaetz's motion (and set it aside) or refer it to a committee.

If the resolution is tabled or referred to committee, Gaetz could introduce another motion to vacate as early as the following day, according to Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank.

In other words, Gaetz could force repeated votes on McCarthy's speakership.

Sources close to Gaetz tell ABC News if his motion to vacate fails the first time, he will likely raise it again sometime in the following weeks or months.

What will Republicans do?

Gaetz does not have a lot of friends in Congress, even among McCarthy's critics and the spending hawks who voted with Gaetz against the stopgap funding bill. ABC News spoke to several who hated that deal but still supported McCarthy.

Of the 90 Republicans who voted against the funding measure on Saturday, a fraction have been critical of the speaker, both privately and publicly. Those include Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Matt Rosendale of Montana, as well as a few others.

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Biggs, Rosendale, Gaetz, Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., and Rep. Eli Crane, R-Ariz., all voted “present” rather than voting for McCarthy to win the speaker's gavel in January, which suggests they may be the most willing to vote to remove him.

Crane posted on X on Sunday, reacting to Gaetz's plan: "Let's roll!" Many others have not publicly weighed in.

Others in the hard-right House Freedom Caucus who have criticized GOP leadership but have supported McCarthy at times have been more evasive on questions about him.

Across 15 votes for speaker in January, no more than 21 Republicans opposed McCarthy at the high water mark for his critics, while roughly 200 stuck with the California Republican throughout five days of voting.

Without a surprising and unexpected evaporation of McCarthy’s support in the conference, it’s unlikely that Gaetz will be able to remove him with GOP votes on his first attempt.

What will Democrats do?

McCarthy may have won the gavel with the Republican majority, but whether he keeps it depends on how Democrats proceed.

Sources tell ABC News that Democrats have already started discussing how to handle the motion to vacate but, so far, there hasn't been a firm consensus.

Some Democrats have said they are weighing whether to vote "present," which would help McCarthy just as it did when he first won the speaker's gavel by lowering the total number of votes he needs to keep his job.

Other Democrats said they would have been more inclined to help McCarthy if the motion to vacate was standing in the way of a bipartisan deal to fund the government. That's no longer on the table.

Most Democrats are looking to House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries for guidance -- and he has dismissed any questions about this as hypotheticals.

On CNN on Sunday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a prominent Democrat from New York, said she would vote to remove McCarthy as he had "clearly lost control."

"I believe it's up to the Republican conference to determine their own leadership and deal with their own problems. But it's not up to Democrats to save Republicans -- from themselves especially," she said.

Gaetz has been reaching out to Democratic members, trying to convince them to join his efforts to force McCarthy out and floating names of possible replacements, per multiple sources.

In the past, Democrats have also expressed concern that working to remove a Republican speaker could result in a more conservative successor emerging.

PHOTO: House Speaker Kevin McCarthy speaks with members of the media alongside Majority Whip Rep. Tom Emmer following passage in the House of a 45-day continuing resolution, Sept. 30, 2023 in Washington, DC.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy speaks with members of the media alongside Majority Whip Rep. Tom Emmer following passage in the House of a 45-day continuing resolution, Sept. 30, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Nathan Howard/Getty Images

What happens in the House if McCarthy is removed as speaker

It is believed the House would not be able to conduct any other legislative business until a new speaker is chosen by members.

Asked Sunday on "This Week" whom he would support as McCarthy's successor, Gaetz suggested he hadn't decided on someone. A similar dynamic played out during the speakership contest in January, when McCarthy's Republican critics -- a minority of the conference -- could not settle on an alternative who could unite the party.

"We have a lot of talented people in our conference," Gaetz told Karl. "Obviously, it's an awkward discussion while our No. 2, [Majority Leader] Steve Scalise, is in treatment for blood cancer. ... I want to see how Steve Scalise comes out of that."

While Gaetz might be floating names of possible replacements no one is rallying around a viable option. And even if McCarthy is ousted, the headaches of trying to appeal to the disparate wings of the party aren't going away. Even Republicans describe McCarthy's job as "impossible."

Rep. Troy Nehls of Texas told ABC News Senior Congressional Correspondent Rachel Scott: "He just has an impossible job. You've got to understand there are 435 people up here. And I can tell you, many of them do not lack self-confidence. Everybody has an answer to everything. It's tough to manage this."

When asked on Saturday about the threatened motion to vacate, one Republican member who supports McCarthy let out a deep sigh. "I'm tired of it talking about it," they said. "Let's just get on with it."

Has this happened before?

Very rarely. In July 2015, then-Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., filed a resolution to force a vote on John Boehner's speakership.

Because Meadows did not introduce the motion publicly on the floor, it was not fast-tracked for a vote and not taken up. But it did factor into Boehner's decision to leave Congress two months later.

The motion has only been used once in American history. In 1910, an unsuccessful push to vacate the chair ultimately led to a series of procedural votes that ended up weakening then-Speaker Joseph Cannon, R-Ill.

ABC News' Mariam Khan, John Parkinson and Lauren Peller contributed to this report.

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