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Speaker Kevin McCarthy

Can McCarthy survive as speaker?

The House of Representatives — the most volatile organ in our body politic — is lurching from crisis to crisis thanks to the dysfunction inside the GOP conference.

Less than 24 hours after Congress averted a government shutdown, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) — reviled by many House Republicans — went on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday and told Jake Tapper that he’d file a motion to vacate, challenging Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s hold on the gavel.

Gaetz acknowledged his effort is likely to fail, suggesting Democrats “probably will” come to McCarthy’s rescue. Gaetz then criticized McCarthy for even considering the possibility of remaining speaker with Democratic support — despite the fact that Gaetz spent weeks courting Democrats in his bid to topple McCarthy.

Once Gaetz files his motion, the GOP leadership has two days to schedule a vote. There are some preliminary steps that have to take place before the vote on that motion, though. One is called a “Question of consideration.” If a majority of the House simply doesn’t want to deal with this issue, they can kill it. Read more about that here.

The Republican leadership could also try to hold the vote immediately, although attendance will be the key here. Some pro-McCarthy lawmakers have argued to us that they should preempt Gaetz’s motion with a motion to vacate of their own. The bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus discussed this option, although Democrats in that group are unlikely to do so without some nod from House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries.

In any case, a McCarthy ally will offer a motion to table Gaetz’s proposal.

At that point, McCarthy’s best hope is that a large group of Democrats either sit out the vote or vote present, thus lowering his threshold to win without formally backing the speaker. Or Democrats vote to table the motion, arguing they don’t want to be dragged into a Republican civil war.

As of late Sunday, key members of the Problem Solvers Caucus and the Blue Dog Coalition — the centrist Democrats most likely to help McCarthy — hadn’t heard from the speaker’s team nor their own leadership. They’re not free agents here, of course. Jeffries will have to decide how to respond to all this.

The math here for McCarthy is tricky. It’s feasible that there will be 20 or more Republicans who could vote against him. That would have to be offset by an equal amount of Democratic yes votes, which is what Gaetz wants.

The question then becomes can McCarthy really survive inside the Republican conference after losing that many GOP votes? McCarthy’s leadership team knows that’s problematic. McCarthy will run into trouble on rule votes and other party-line procedural measures if he relies on Democrats to keep him in the speaker’s chair.

Making it more dicey for McCarthy is that Gaetz has signaled he’ll keep filing these motions until the speaker is gone. But this threat cuts both ways. Gaetz loses the shock value of his motion every time he offers it. McCarthy, though, risks having his support slowly melt away as members tire of walking the plank for him.

But here’s another question: Could McCarthy move to change the motion-to-vacate rule after Gaetz attempts to boot him — assuming the speaker survives it? That’s come up in some conversations we’ve had with McCarthy’s allies. He’d need 218 votes to do so, meaning Democrats would have to back him up there, too.

Are we convinced McCarthy will get through this? No, not at all. McCarthy very well could be a former speaker by the end of this week. And anyone who tells you definitively that they know what’s going to happen is delusional or isn’t being honest.

But we can say the following:

No. 1: McCarthy doesn’t want his career to end at Gaetz’s hands. The speaker’s friends think Gaetz isn’t fit to serve in Congress, much less have a say in who’s speaker.

No. 2: McCarthy has about 200 solid GOP votes he can count on. No one else in the Republican Conference can match that — not at this moment. That could change. But it’s the reality as of now.

No. 3: The universe of potential yes votes for ousting McCarthy is small. Twenty to 30 Republicans at most. So the lobbying effort is narrow but very intense.

No. 4: Gaetz is unmovable. There’s nothing that McCarthy can offer him to go away.

No. 5: You should expect McCarthy’s allies to move against Gaetz. If the Ethics Committee sanctions Gaetz — we first reported the Florida Republican was under investigation back in June — then the pro-McCarthy faction will blow this up. Gaetz has repeatedly blamed McCarthy for that probe.

No. 6: House Republicans — and Democrats too — don’t want to undergo the chaos of an extended floor fight over the speakership. January’s debacle is seared in everyone’s memory.

No. 7: If McCarthy gets Democrats to back him in some way, Gaetz and his supporters will say the speaker bought them off somehow. The House Republican Conference could become even more unstable.

No. 8: House Majority Leader Steve Scalise and House Majority Whip Tom Emmer aren’t really taking part in the effort to defeat the Gaetz motion. McCarthy is relying far more on close allies including Reps. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) and Garret Graves (R-La.), as he did back in January.

— Jake Sherman, Mica Soellner, Max Cohen and John Bresnahan

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