Will the Motion to Vacate Be Vacated?

Just minutes after his historic ouster as speaker, Representative Kevin McCarthy offered some blunt advice to his successor: “Change the rule.”

The rule in question allows a single member of the House to force action on a resolution to remove the speaker, as Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, did this week. The move initiated a successful coup, as a rebel bloc of eight Republican hard-liners joined with Democrats to declare the speaker’s chair vacant, thus forcing Mr. McCarthy out.

Now the fate of that rule is becoming a pivotal part of the debate surrounding the selection of a new speaker who would be at the mercy of the same unforgiving math if nothing changes.

In the aftermath of Mr. McCarthy’s toppling, many more mainstream Republicans have demanded that the chamber dump the single-member motion to vacate, as Democrats did when they controlled the House.

They argue that a change would prevent the next speaker from finding themselves in the same circumstances as Mr. McCarthy’s when, as is likely, they must cut some sort of deal with Democrats on government funding that the hard right finds objectionable. They see the election of a new speaker as a moment to at least begin considering overhauling a rule that most House Republicans believe led to Mr. McCarthy being undeservedly deposed.

“Whoever the new speaker is is going to be held hostage on this,” said Representative Don Bacon, Republican of Nebraska. “It should be eliminated.”

He was one of 45 House Republicans who signed a letter to their G.O.P. colleagues on Friday demanding unspecified “fundamental changes to the structure of our majority” to prevent a repeat of what happened to Mr. McCarthy, thought they did not mention the motion to vacate.

Another signatory, Representative Carlos Gimenez, Republican of Florida, went further on X, the social media network formerly known as Twitter.

“The person who wants my vote for Speaker must commit to reforming the motion to vacate,” he wrote in a post pinned to the top of his feed. “The threshold must be raised to 50% of the Republican Conference. A Speaker cannot govern under constant threat by fringe hostage takers.”

The Republican Main Street Caucus also weighed in on X, calling the rule a “chokehold” and saying that “any candidate for Speaker must explain to us how what happened on Tuesday will never happen again.”

Yet so far, the two leading candidates for the post, Representatives Jim Jordan of Ohio and Steve Scalise of Louisiana, do not appear eager to get out in front on this inflammatory issue. They said it should be left up to House Republicans to make the call.

“We will have to decide as 222 Republicans, are we going to change that?” Mr. Jordan said on Fox News. “That’s the only way it gets done, if that’s what the conference wants.”

The problem for Mr. Scalise, Mr. Jordan and anyone else who wants to be elected speaker is that it would take 217 votes to change the rule. There are currently 221 Republicans in the House, with one seat vacant. Eight Republicans deployed the rule to undo Mr. McCarthy.

Members of that bloc might be reluctant to make any changes, since the rule is the very thing that empowers them. But Mr. Gaetz, the architect of Mr. McCarthy’s demise, told Fox News Digital that he would be “open-minded” about a possible change. And if backing a change costs a speaker candidate more than four votes, they cannot be elected.

Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, who was part of the far-right bloc that ousted Mr. McCarthy, said he was “open-minded” about a change to the rule.Credit…Kent Nishimura for The New York Times

Republicans could also look to Democrats to help them eliminate or modify the rule, but Mr. Jordan was adamant that would not happen. “I’m not going to go to Democrats to get that done,” he said on Fox News. “No way.”

The rule existed for hundreds of years in the House handbook but was used only once before, in 1910 against Speaker Joseph Cannon, who survived. The reason it was never much of a threat previously was because individual House members were not foolhardy enough to try to take on speakers who wielded enormous power and could exact revenge. That changed in 2015, when a bloc of emboldened far-right Republicans threatened to move against Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, who eventually stepped aside on his own.

When Democrats took back the majority in 2018 and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California returned as the speaker, the rules were changed to require the agreement of a majority of a party conference or caucus to force action on a motion to vacate. But it was hard to imagine Ms. Pelosi facing such a rebellion at all.

Mr. McCarthy, fighting to be elected speaker in January, wanted to stick with that threshold to protect himself. But right-wing holdouts insisted on restoring the single-member motion, and he reluctantly agreed in his desperation to win them over, ultimately sealing his fate.

Republicans included a nonbinding policy in their conference rules that a motion to vacate “should only be available with the agreement of the Republican Conference so as to not allow Democrats to choose the speaker.” But that statement is easily ignored, as Mr. Gaetz demonstrated.

Some Republicans say they should stick with the current rule.

“Congress ought not fear the MTV,” Representative Warren Davidson, Republican of Ohio, said on X, using shorthand for the motion.

With the debate intensifying, some conservative groups who work to elect Republicans are also urging lawmakers to stand firm. David M. McIntosh, a former congressman from Indiana who is the president of the Club for Growth, said on X that his organization would “oppose any candidate for Speaker of the House who supports a return to Pelosi’s rules.”

But many House Republicans believe that without at least raising the bar for bringing forward a resolution to remove the speaker, they will quickly find themselves in the same predicament. Mr. McCarthy’s ouster confirmed their belief that caving to the hard right in the first place was a terrible mistake.

“I thought it was bad in January,” said Mr. Bacon, the representative from Nebraska. He noted the difference in what it would have taken to challenge Ms. Pelosi compared with Mr. McCarthy: “We went from 112 to 1. It was absurd.”

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