After Congress narrowly avoided a government shutdown for at least 45 days last weekend, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) introduced a motion to remove House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) from the chamber’s top leadership position.
The procedural tool, which is called a motion to vacate, is a privileged resolution that can be introduced by any member of the House to declare the office of the House speaker vacant. Multiple other Republicans, some of whom have opposed McCarthy’s speakership in the past, have shown support for Gaetz’s introduction, including Reps. Tim Burchett (R-TN), Andy Biggs (R-AZ), Bob Good (R-VA), and Eli Crane (R-AZ).
With a full House vote on Gaetz’s motion expected Tuesday or Wednesday, here is everything you need to know about the process of removing a speaker of the House, something that has only happened three times in history.
How does it work?
If a motion to vacate is introduced by any one member, Democratic or Republican, the House must bring the privileged resolution to the floor for a vote at some point. However, there are procedural motions that could be brought up to delay the process or stop the vote altogether — procedural votes would be required to slow down the motion.
Where did it come from?
While the Constitution does not mention any guidelines about ousting a speaker, the motion to vacate was part of Jefferson’s Manual, written by Thomas Jefferson and adopted by the House as guidance for the parliamentary procedure in 1837.
“A Speaker may be removed at the will of the House, and a Speaker pro tempore appointed,” the manual reads.
How many votes are required?
As the rule stands, if the motion comes to the House floor, it would need only a simple majority of the House, or 218 votes, to pass. Republicans hold the majority in the House with 221 seats, while Democrats hold 212, meaning McCarthy can afford to lose four votes.
How often can it come up?
The rank-and-file procedure can be used by lawmakers during a legislative day. And Gaetz, or any other member of the House, can continue bringing up the motion regardless of whether it fails to remove McCarthy.
When has this happened before?
The motion to vacate was first used in 1910 against House Speaker Joseph Cannon. Republicans removed Cannon from his spot on the Rules Committee but voted to keep him in office.
In a similar fashion, Republicans threatened to oust their House speaker in 1997, Newt Gingrich, but decided against filing the resolution. Former North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows filed a motion to vacate against then-Speaker John Boehner in 2015, but Boehner resigned as speaker within a few months, and the resolution never came to vote.
When does a vote have to happen?
The motion to vacate is considered privileged and requires a vote to occur within two legislative days after the resolution is introduced. The vote to oust McCarthy could come up as early as noon on Tuesday.
Why is Gaetz doing this?
Gaetz has long promised to move to launch a vote to oust McCarthy as top Republican, creating deep divides over the leadership position. The resolution came after McCarthy worked with Democrats to gain the necessary votes to fund the government, averting a shutdown. Gaetz and other hard-line Republicans were angered over the team-up with Democrats to prevent a government shutdown, giving them a reason to execute the threat they’ve dangled over the speaker since January.
Why is Gaetz allowed?
Democrats changed the motion to vacate rule in 2019 after taking back the House majority, allowing a motion to vacate to be brought up “only if offered at the direction of a party conference or caucus.”
However, in his bid to become speaker of the House, which took 15 rounds of votes, McCarthy made concessions with hard-line Republicans, including allowing only one member to be needed to bring a motion to vacate, effectively reversing the Democrats’ rule change.