Updated Sep 12, 2023 - Politics & Policy

How Democrats could save Kevin McCarthy

Photo: Matt Gaetz and Kevin McCarthy speak during the speaker elections in January. Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

As Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) publicly floats a plan to team up with Democrats in an effort to remove House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), some House Democrats say they’re not interested.

Why it matters: A single member can trigger a "motion to vacate" vote, but actually removing the speaker requires a majority of the House and would likely need substantial support from Democrats.

  • McCarthy's allies say he can likely count on most of the Republican conference to support him. "The 180 to 200 or perhaps even more [of the 222 House Republicans] are willing to vote for McCarthy as long as it takes," Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) told Axios.
  • That would leave insurgents needing as many as 200 Democratic votes – nearly the whole caucus – to oust McCarthy.

What they're saying: "Most of us came here to govern and get things done, not indulge Matt Gaetz when he has one of his tantrums," Rep. Greg Landsman (D-Ohio) told Axios.

  • Another House Democrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, predicted "some" Democrats may support a motion to vacate, but "most won't."
  • "No love for Kevin. But [there is] concern about more chaos, and who might take his place if he is booted," the lawmaker said, calling McCarthy "the devil you know."
  • Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) a member of the Progressive Caucus, told Axios, “If we vacated the chair, I don't see a better speaker. So I don’t foresee that happening.”

The backdrop: Gaetz said last week that the right should try forcing a vote on impeaching President Biden, and that "if Kevin McCarthy stands in our way, he may not have the job long."

  • On Sunday he doubled down, saying in a social media post addressed to Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.): "If I make a motion to remove Kevin, how may democrat votes can I count on?"
  • McCarthy brushed off Gaetz's threats on Monday, telling reporters he is "not at all" worried about losing his gavel and that Gaetz "should go ahead and do it."
  • McCarthy plans to endorse a Biden impeachment inquiry during a meeting with House Republicans on Thursday.

Back in May, Democrats floated a plan to protect McCarthy if GOP hardliners tried to oust him for cutting a bipartisan debt ceiling deal with Democrats.

  • McCarthy's office at the time blasted such suggestions as "garbage" and said the speaker had "zero interest" in it.
  • While members of the right-wing Freedom Caucus ultimately did not push to eject McCarthy, they did shut down the House floor for more than a week – and the tensions have grown more strained.

Between the lines: Any Democratic support could be conditioned on McCarthy compromising on government funding – which would be a likely catalyst for a right-wing motion to vacate.

  • McCarthy "will almost certainly need [Democratic] votes" to avert a government shutdown later this month, one senior House Democrat said, but Republicans are "reneging" on spending levels set out in the debt ceiling deal.
  • "There's little incentive for Democrats to support him in the event of a motion to vacate" as a result, the lawmaker told Axios – though they added: "It's not too late, but it's the fourth quarter and time is running out."
  • Cohen said Democrats “probably should support McCarthy if he does the right thing in trying to get a continuing resolution passed, particularly one that … supports Ukraine.”

What's next: McCarthy has an exceedingly difficult task as he tries to find a spending compromise with Senate Democrats and the White House without touching off a revolt from some of his most conservative members.

  • Some of McCarthy's right flank have said the House GOP's party-line spending bills, which already set topline spending levels far below the bipartisan Senate appropriations bills, don't go far enough with their spending cuts.
  • Gaetz plans to speak on the House floor Tuesday afternoon to "lay out his vision for the House of Representatives moving forward."

The bottom line: “I wonder if Gaetz is out there drowning and looking for some help, knowing there are not enough votes on the Republican side to remove [McCarthy],” Cohen said.

  • “The Tom Coles of the world,” he added, referring to the collegial Republican Rules Committee chair, “they're mature and they're grounded, and I think there are enough of them in the caucus that's not going to happen."

Editor's note: This article has been updated with more quotes.

Go deeper