New House speaker must break with ‘motion to vacate’

Published 8:54 am Wednesday, October 11, 2023

By Sid Salter

Former U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in some ways braided the House rules rope that eight ultra-conservative Republican House members used to hang him in the historic vote on the “motion to vacate the chair” that ousted the California lawmaker from his leadership post. 

McCarthy endured a humiliating 15 votes in his quest to become House Speaker of the 118th Congress in January before finally winning the votes necessary to assume that post in the most protracted battle to elect the U.S. House Speaker since 1859 when it took 44 ballots to elect Republican William Pennington speaker — and the toughest fight since 1923 when it took GOP Speaker Frederick Gillett nine ballots to be reelected to the post. 

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House Republicans in January were at a standstill after attaining a slight congressional majority in the 2022 midterm elections. Without coalescing behind a new House speaker, the 118th Congress could not be sworn into office, form committees, or begin the business of governing. That was the practical impact. But the political damage to the Republican Party which saw the speaker’s choice delayed and almost derailed by a group of backbenchers and political stuntpeople from within their own party was nothing if not immediate, embarrassing and harmful. 

With each failed vote, that four-day marathon political standoff saw McCarthy cede more and more political power to the so-called House Freedom Caucus to win their support. That GOP rump group, a minority of around 20, was too inconsequential to elect a speaker from their meager ranks. But they could block the process for the Republican House majority and force McCarthy to substantially weaken the position of the speaker and his own ability to negotiate across the political aisle with Democrats moving forward. 

That, in less than a year, is exactly what happened. McCarthy promised and agreed to sweeping rules – including how many far-right GOP members would be on the House Rules Committee and other key changes that weakened the post of House speaker and empowered the rump group minority. In addition to promising highly coveted committee assignments to far-right Republicans, McCarthy handed campaign finance wins to groups like Club for Growth. 

McCarthy made it easier for the small group holding up the speaker’s vote to challenge legislation on the floor and harder for legislation they opposed to be brought to a floor vote. 

But most ominously, McCarthy agreed to a rule change that would allow a single rank-and-file lawmaker from either party to be able to call a vote on ousting the House speaker. Before McCarthy capitulated to U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz and his House rebels, at least half of House Republicans were required to support the motion to trigger such a vote – called a “motion to vacate the chair.” But under the rules change, if the motion to vacate made it to a floor vote, it needs only a simple majority to pass. 

Gaetz and his followers got the motion to the floor and McCarthy was removed under the very rules he endorsed in January. 

Now comes the race for a new GOP House speaker that is expected to play out this week. House Majority Leader Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a staunch supporter of Donald Trump (who has endorsed him), are the presumptive favorites to succeed McCarthy. 

The approaching 2024 election cycle is fraught with uncertainties in both parties. With narrow Democrat control of the Senate and narrow GOP control of the House, the likelihood of the political needle moving dramatically from current policies between now and the 2024 elections is slim – but global geopolitical turmoil and a troublesome economy could change that. 

No House speaker, from either party, can effectively lead with the rules McCarthy agreed to back in January. A rule allowing one rogue member of Congress to essentially trigger a “no confidence” vote weakens the House speaker’s role far below that which the Constitution contemplated. 

The new speaker – and those who follow him or her in the future – should summarily reject living under a political Sword of Damocles like that Gaetz negotiated and to which McCarthy bowed and ultimately fell. 

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at