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McCarthy’s big concession — and how it could hamstring a GOP speaker

The rules change is likely to loom over whoever gets the job, by threatening them with expulsion at any point

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in November. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

We’ll soon learn whether Kevin McCarthy has the votes to become speaker of the House.

But the concessions he made in pursuit of that title could reverberate for years to come — and even jeopardize the speakership of McCarthy (R-Calif.) or whoever else wins the job.

As The Washington Post’s Early 202 reports, McCarthy has made a number of concessions in the proposed House rules, trying to appease holdouts in his party who want to increase the power of rank-and-file members. This is among the more insider-y and perhaps boring aspects of the speakership fight, but it could be the most consequential.

High on the list of potentially significant changes is what’s known as the motion to “vacate the chair.” Essentially, this allows members to stand up and attempt to replace the speaker. McCarthy has now proposed allowing any five members to force such a vote, which is akin to a vote of no confidence.

This would actually be a higher threshold than the case historically, when one member could force such a vote. But in 2019, newly installed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the Democrats weakened the rule, requiring either a party leader or a majority vote by one party to force such a vote.

Even with the lower, one-member threshold, the motion to vacate has rarely been invoked.

The last time it resulted in an actual vote was in 1910, when progressive Republicans and Democrats united to rebuke House Speaker Joseph Gurney Cannon (R-Ill.); the series of votes culminated in a failed motion to vacate the chair.

The motion to vacate has since been threatened when opposition rose in the ranks of the speaker’s party. A group of Republicans plotted to use it against Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1997, but ultimately never filed, and Gingrich ended up stepping aside after a disappointing 1998 election. Then in 2015, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) filed a motion to vacate the chair shortly before Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) resigned.

So why all the fuss about a rule that arguably hasn’t been used successfully and, even with this change, could be weaker than it has been throughout the 20th century?

Because it looms larger these days, for a few reasons.

When Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) emerged as the consensus (and perhaps the only viable) candidate to replace Boehner, he initially indicated that he wanted a change to the rule because he so feared it. His spokesperson said at the time, “No matter who is speaker, they cannot be successful with this weapon pointed at them all the time.”

The House Freedom Caucus declared this position a non-starter, and no change was made. But that comment rings even truer today.

Not only had dissent grown in the tea party era (and arguably, continued to do so in the post-tea party era), the margins are so fine that the rabble-rousers and hostage-takers have been significantly empowered. When Ryan became speaker, Republicans had their biggest majority since the Great Depression — with 247 votes, or about 30 votes to spare to get a majority — and they still struggled to land on a speaker. And he still feared this rule.

Today, that margin for error is one of the smallest in history. The GOP’s majority is now 222-212 and will probably be 222-213 once a special election in Virginia is completed.

What that means, practically speaking, is that five Republicans could attempt to thwart McCarthy’s (or anyone else’s) speakership not just this week, but at any point in the future. Five is not only the proposed threshold for forcing the vote — it’s also the number of members who could join with Democrats to oust the speaker. And this wing of the party has proven it’s willing to wreck shop to bend leaders to its will.

There is a real question about whether it would ever come to that, of course. It’s one thing for Democrats to vote for their own candidate for speaker, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), but a motion to vacate the chair would essentially be voting to replace McCarthy with, well, someone. That someone could wind up being someone they like even less than McCarthy. (Then again, Democrats might reason that throwing the House GOP into chaos would be a desirable end unto itself.)

More imminently and perhaps more importantly, if McCarthy does anything those members don’t like, they could wield this rule just like Meadows wielded it against Boehner. The concession might or might not ultimately be enough for McCarthy to win the speakership, for the time being. But regardless, that “weapon” would be constantly pointed at the speaker in a way that could force him to bend to the House Freedom Caucus’s whims, lose his speakership or — ultimately — both. Some argue that the fuss over the motion to vacate the chair is overblown, given the history, but there’s a reason Ryan wanted to weaken it and Pelosi and the Democrats did weaken it.

Even if this concession is not enough for McCarthy to win the job, any would-be alternatives will probably have to make it, too. Asked whether the McCarthy holdouts would demand the same changes of any alternative candidates for the job, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) told CNN: “Of course. The McCarthy concessions are a baseline for anyone.”

And just as a higher threshold for a motion to vacate was a non-starter for Republicans under Ryan, when the party had much more of a cushion, it’s a bell that can’t be unrung now that McCarthy has decided to ring it.

It’s surely a win for the McCarthy holdouts. The fact that he gave them so much shows both the precarity of his position and how complicated life will get for him or whoever emerges from the voting process. It might not mean McCarthy or any other speaker will be ousted, but it’s very likely to hover over their speakership.

Kevin McCarthy’s bid for speaker of the House

The vote: The House elected Kevin McCarthy after days of defeats and concessions to win over hard-line Republicans. See how each of the House members voted in all 15 ballots.

A dramatic finish: After multiple ballots over four days (the longest House speaker vote in history took two months and 133 votes), the House turned into a near-brawl late Friday after a 14th round of voting failed. See the remarkable near-confrontation on the House floor.

Kevin McCarthy’s concessions: McCarthy made several concessions in an attempt to win over 20 Republicans who voted against his candidacy. In the end, these were the remaining six holdouts McCarthy needed to persuade. Here are the concessions that could become flash points.