Gaetz has been threatening for months to call a vote of no confidence, claiming McCarthy has “breached” the agreement he negotiated with hard-line conservatives in January to win the gavel. He finally pulled the trigger on Monday, two days after the House passed a stopgap bill to avert a government shutdown with the help of Democrats.
Gaetz framed the bill, which will fund the government for 45 days while House Republicans work through a series of conservative spending measures, as a betrayal — although a majority of his conference voted for it, so did nearly all Democrats. However, allies of McCarthy say it is Gaetz who is conspiring with Democrats in his effort to depose the speaker.
Gaetz’s voice is a distinct minority within his conference, but he and a group of conservative hard-liners have outsize leverage given McCarthy’s four-seat majority in the chamber. He needs the help of just four other Republicans to topple McCarthy, assuming all Democrats vote for his ouster.
Democrats could bail McCarthy out, extending him just enough votes to cancel out a conservative mutiny, but doing so would require concessions on everything from Ukraine funding to the impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden.
Gaetz has taunted McCarthy over that prospect, saying if he survives the no-confidence vote, he’ll be “serving at the pleasure of the Democrats.”
Yet McCarthy allies make the opposite case: that any effort to oust the speaker, who enjoys overwhelming support from his conference, would create the striking visual of Gaetz siding with Democrats in opposition to his Republican colleagues.
“I think it’s clear that Matt Gaetz is trying to undermine the Republican majority and the speaker for his own personal and political purposes,” said Rep. Mike Lawler (R-NY), who represents a district won by Biden in 2020.
“And I think the fact that he would even entertain the idea of working with the ‘Squad’ and progressive Democrats to undermine the House majority speaks volumes,” he added.
Gaetz spoke with influential Democrats including Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) as he gauged support for a motion to vacate, according to Politico. Allies even accuse him of offering Democrats a say in who gets subpoenaed in House Republicans’ impeachment investigation.
Gaetz has categorically denied those claims. “Absolutely not,” he said on Sunday when asked if he’d cut a deal with Democrats. “And I don’t think that any Republicans that share my view on Speaker McCarthy would cut deals with Democrats.”
But the insinuation that Gaetz does not have the best interests of his conference at heart is central to the attempt by McCarthy allies to marginalize him as a motion to vacate fight unfolds.
Gaetz insists his crusade is about keeping McCarthy accountable, yet his critics say it’s personal, repeatedly citing the House Ethics Committee investigation into him. That investigation, focused on allegations of sexual misconduct that Gaetz denies, predates McCarthy’s speakership, but McCarthy suggests that Gaetz is so militantly against him because he has not intervened to shut it down.
Gaetz, for his part, dismisses the idea that he faults McCarthy. He is, however, fundraising off reports that colleagues want to use the findings of that investigation to boot him from Congress.
The bad blood is nothing new. Gaetz famously called McCarthy a squatter for occupying the speaker’s office before he locked down the gavel. And at the height of tensions that January, McCarthy ally Mike Rogers (R-AL) appeared to lunge at Gaetz after the 14th round of voting.
McCarthy until now has taken a “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach to governance. He’s steered his conference to the right, promising deep spending cuts and a hard line on issues including the border. His decision to lower the threshold for a no-confidence vote to a single member is partly why he’s in his current predicament.
Conservatives, infuriated by the deal McCarthy cut with Biden in the spring to raise the debt ceiling, do not trust that he will follow through on his promises and have taken ever more aggressive steps to ensure his compliance.
Yet McCarthy has responded in kind in recent weeks. He’s dared Gaetz to file the motion and, at great personal risk to his speakership, scrapped a more conservative stopgap measure that fell apart after 21 Republicans voted against it. Instead, he brought to the floor a largely “clean” measure that Democrats could get behind on Saturday.
Following the decision to file a motion to vacate, which tees up a vote that must occur within the next two legislative days, McCarthy responded with three words: “Bring it on.”
Gaetz says McCarthy is just playing “shutdown politics,” attempting to move the goalposts until lawmakers feel compelled to pass a bloated omnibus bill before leaving town for Christmas.
But McCarthy allies lay blame directly at Gaetz’s feet, arguing his tactics are getting in the way of the very conservative agenda he’s been tasked with pursuing. Among those tactics are the votes he helped tank as the House took up its annual spending bills.
“Some of the distractions and theatrics that are going on are actually resulting in worse outcomes that are actually contrary to Republican objectives,” said Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA), one of McCarthy’s top negotiators in the debt ceiling fight. “And so, I think it’s really important to stay focused on facts, stay focused on outcomes, and not the actual theatrics that we’re that we’re seeing go down.”
The big question is whether McCarthy can convince his right flank that he, not Gaetz, is worth following through the fight. The well of suspicion and distrust runs deep for McCarthy, whom his critics view as a political chameleon. At least five lawmakers were in favor of or inclined to support Gaetz’s no-confidence vote as of Monday night.
Yet Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-SD), a McCarthy ally and Republican centrist, judged that the move would backfire on Gaetz.
“I think Mr. Gaetz is making a massive strategic miscalculation,” he said. “It seems to me that more than anything, there has been a rally around the leader from within the conference.”
And at least some hard-liners, including Freedom Caucus members Chip Roy (R-TX) and Byron Donalds (R-FL), want to give McCarthy the breathing room to get through the appropriations process.
“I think that the speaker deserves the ability to finish this year’s process, through the appropriations process, through the battle of funding government, through the Ukraine debate and border, and to honor the commitments he’s made,” Roy, the policy chairman of the caucus, told Fox News’s Sean Hannity on Monday.
McCarthy plans to pass all 12 appropriations bills by the new government funding deadline of Nov. 17.
“We’re going to finish that out like we’re supposed to do. This is what the time clock allows us to do,” McCarthy told reporters on Monday. “And we’re focused on eliminating wasteful spending, getting the ‘wokeism’ out, but most importantly, securing our border — that is key.”
Standing in the way of delivering on the promises to his right flank are Democrats, who control the Senate and White House. They have already rejected the House’s spending bills, which are being marked up below the levels agreed to in the debt ceiling compromise.