Hard-line Republican threats to force a vote on ousting Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) from his post could soon thrust Democrats into a difficult decision: Do they save the Speaker who opened an impeachment inquiry into their president or join Republicans in booting him?
Top Democrats say they have not formulated a strategy for handling such a vote, dismissing questions as hypothetical and insisting that they are focused on funding the government and averting a shutdown ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline.
But Democrats’ votes could save — or end — McCarthy’s Speakership, which he clinched after a marathon 15 rounds of voting in January.
“It would be a big question,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the House Progressive Caucus, told The Hill on Tuesday.
That question, however, is of high interest, and Democrats may have to answer it sooner rather than later.
McCarthy hasn’t been able to unite his fractious conference around a plan to fund the government, threats to oust him are growing louder, and internal GOP sniping is spilling into public view.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), one of McCarthy’s top adversaries, put the Speaker on notice last week, announcing in a floor speech that he would force a vote on booting him if he does not meet a list of demands on spending and legislation.
On Tuesday, a reporter found what appeared to be a House resolution drafted by Gaetz in a Capitol bathroom that said “the office of Speaker of the House of Representatives is hereby declared to be vacant.” The Hill could not independently confirm the authenticity of the document.
McCarthy, for his part, has brushed aside the idea that his gavel is in jeopardy. Asked on Monday if he thinks he will need support from the other side of the aisle to salvage his Speakership, McCarthy responded “I’m not worried about that.”
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) over the weekend said the Democratic caucus “haven’t given it any thought one way or the other” when asked about a potential vote on ousting McCarthy, adding that the group will “cross that bridge when we get to it.”
House Minority Whip Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) would not say if leadership would whip a vote on ousting McCarthy — “we’re gonna cross that” — but she predicted that Democrats will remain united.
“We have been unified on every single vote, so we’ll stay that way,” Clark told The Hill.
Some Democrats have flat out said or suggested that they would support an effort to oust McCarthy, upping the pressure on the Speaker.
“I don’t see any Democrats out to save McCarthy, like we’re on Team Jeffries,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), who has sparred with McCarthy in the past, told The Hill last week. “And so, you know, we would try and put up the votes for Speaker Jeffries, like that’s what we did on the last Speaker vote.”
“Vacating gets us closer, you know, to Team Jeffries, so that’s how I see it,” the California Democrat said, adding that he would vote to oust McCarthy.
Earlier this month, Swalwell accused Gaetz of making “empty threats” about ousting McCarthy in a post on X, adding “Gaetz folded like a cheap card table to make McCarthy speaker and will never — I repeat never — make a motion to remove McCarthy.”
The Florida Republican shot back, asking his Democratic opponent, “If I made a motion to remove Kevin, how many democrat votes can I count on?” Since that social media back-and-forth, McCarthy has said Gaetz is working with Swalwell to oust him.
Jayapal said if the vote is a referendum on McCarthy as a Speaker, it will be a clear choice for Democrats.
“I think at the end of the day, if we're voting on whether Kevin McCarthy is a good Speaker or not, then the answer would be pretty clear,” she said.
But the idea of jumping on board with conservatives to remove the Speaker is one that runs counter to the general thinking of Democrats, who have never been enthused about the motion to vacate process, going so far as to not including the option in the House rules when they controlled the chamber.
One House Democrat told The Hill that the caucus “would’ve protected” McCarthy after he struck a deal with President Biden over the summer to raise the debt limit and avoid a default, which analysts and experts said would have been catastrophic for the economy.
But amid pressure from hard-line conservatives to cut spending, House Republicans crafted appropriations bills at levels far lower than those laid out in the bipartisan deal — a move that frustrated Democrats — and added policy changes that would be red lines for liberals.
Then came McCarthy’s move to open an impeachment inquiry into Biden, which Democrats say has put how the caucus handles a vote on his ouster up in the air.
“I think previously people thought that Democrats would protect him, and now it’s an open question,” the lawmaker, granted anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic, said.
“The impeachment [inquiry]… poisoned the well,” the lawmaker added.
One House Democratic aide argued that prior to the inquiry, some defections among progressives were expected on a motion to vacate, but that it wouldn’t have been a majority of the conference.
“McCarthy opening an impeachment inquiry changed everything,” the aide told The Hill, saying there’d likely be “unanimous” support for the motion, “and that wasn't the case three weeks ago."
"The Gaetzs of the world were always going to hate each other. Instead of figuring out how to protect his right flank, he should have been thinking about Dem votes that would have saved him, and by opening an inquiry he's screwed himself,” the aide continued. "To me, it's not longer an if, but a when."
Democrats swooping in to help McCarthy amid GOP infighting would not be completely unprecedented this Congress.
In May, more than 50 Democrats supported a rule to advance the debt limit bill crafted by Biden and McCarthy. Rule votes are typically routine, partisan matters, with the majority party supporting the effort and the minority party voting “no,” but Democrats helped advance the legislation because they supported the deal at hand.
A scenario involving a vote on a motion to vacate, however, would be different, one lawmaker noted.
And some Democrats have indicated that they will need something from McCarthy in return, suggesting that their support for — or opposition to — a motion to vacate could be used as a negotiating chip.
“I think the Speaker knows that we are the ones who would come — we were the ones there for the debt ceiling … but in the debt ceiling there was a negotiation, he and the president shook hands, they came to a conclusion and we thought it was appropriate to do the right thing,” Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) said last week.
“This is a little bit different as it is right now, it's not the same deal. There has to be something negotiated, can’t be just a, you know, a quid pro quo,” he added.
Pressed on what kind of concessions Democrats would ask for, Phillips pointed to amendments that have been submitted as part of the appropriations process as “non-starters for Democrats.”
“I don’t need to litigate or go through the list of each and every one of those, but he knows what those are. We would’ve had agreement already, the Senate already has an agreement, and that’s where this begins,” Phillips said. “And that’s how if he needs Democrats, I think he knows what it would take.”
“There are more Democrats, with some actions of principle from the Speaker, that would protect him than there are Freedom Caucus members that could remove him,” he added at another point in the conversation. “I think that’s clear.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), echoed that sentiment, inviting McCarthy to “come ask for” her vote.
“If Speaker McCarthy wants my vote to stay in office, he can come ask for it,” Ocasio-Cortez said last week. “But I think he has to earn his place here, and I don’t think, I don’t think any single vote is locked in right now.”
“I mean, he’d have to give us something for it big time,” she later added.
Another House Democrat told The Hill that where things go from here on a motion to vacate “all depends upon Kevin’s behavior in the next few weeks.”