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House GOP debates ditching 'motion to vacate' rule that unseated McCarthy

The rule that allowed Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) to single-handedly call for a vote ousting Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has become a key issue for Republicans as they grapple over who should replace him.

Some are intent on changing the rule, known as a “motion to vacate,” so a handful of House Republicans can never again join with the minority to force a Speaker out and throw the House into chaos. But others who fought for the single-member threshold are defending it.

A group of 45 House Republicans — just over a fifth of the GOP conference — signed on to an open letter last week calling for changes to the “motion to vacate” rule, expressing frustration with the eight GOP lawmakers who joined with Democrats to remove McCarthy.

“It is our responsibility to identify the right person at this moment to lead us into the future to achieve the conservative policy objectives that we and the American people all share,” the members wrote. “We cannot allow our majority to be dictated to by the alliance between the chaos caucus and the minority party that will do nothing more than guarantee the failure of our next Speaker.”

“The injustice we all witnessed cannot go unaddressed — lest we bear responsibility for the consequences that follow. Our Conference must address fundamental changes to the structure of our majority to ensure success for the American people,” the letter said.

Signatories included Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio), chairman of the moderate Republican Governance Group, and Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-N.D.), chairman of the “pragmatic” Main Street Caucus, which put out a similar statement expressing skepticism about the motion to vacate earlier in the week.

“The ability for one person to vacate the Speaker of the House will keep a chokehold on this body through 2024,” the Main Street Caucus wrote in a statement Wednesday morning. “Personal politics should never again be used to trump the will of 96 percent of House conservatives. Any candidate for Speaker must explain to us how what happened on Tuesday will never happen again.”

What exactly the new standard should be, however, is unclear.

Rep. Carlos Gimenez (R-Fla.) has suggested raising the threshold to 50 percent of the House Republican Conference.

“The person who wants my vote for Speaker must commit to reforming the Motion to Vacate,” he said.

Calls to change the rule, though, run up against the demands of hard-line conservatives who pushed McCarthy to adopt the one-person threshold in January as a condition of supporting him for Speaker.

Even some who didn’t vote for McCarthy’s ouster nonetheless support keeping the single-member threshold.

“While I understand some of my colleagues are frustrated over invocation of the Motion to Vacate last week against Speaker Kevin McCarthy — a move I strongly opposed, the rule should remain. It’s an historic, institutional, & important tool for individual members to exercise their right to represent constituents and not be steamrolled by the establishment,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) posted Friday on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Club for Growth, an influential outside conservative group, also warned against certain changes to the standard.

“Club for Growth will oppose any candidate for Speaker of the House who supports a return to Pelosi’s rules, especially her rule change against vacating the chair which stood for more than 200 years,” the group’s president David McIntosh posted on X last week. “The House was meant to act as a democratic body, not at the whims of one person’s self-interested agenda.”

The House had long had a one-person threshold to force a vote on ousting the Speaker. The move had not been attempted for a century, though, until former Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) made a motion in 2015 against then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). While the move failed, it is widely thought to have contributed to Boehner’s resignation later that year.

When Democrats took over the chamber, the House rules changed to only allow the motion to vacate if directed by a party caucus or conference.

Republicans, when they took over this year, had aimed to change the rule again — but instead of reverting back to the one-member threshold, Republicans had drafted rules to allow the motion if five members joined. 

But the 20 Republicans who withheld support for McCarthy at the beginning of the year demanded the threshold be restored to one member — a concession that McCarthy eventually made in order to secure the Speaker’s gavel.

Both candidates for House Speaker — House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) — have said in various interviews that the decision on the motion to vacate threshold should be resolved within the House Republican Conference.

Changing the standard would require changing the House rules with a floor vote.

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