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Could We Really Be Headed Toward—Gulp—Speaker Stefanik?

Kevin McCarthy’s fate may well be decided this week. If he’s out, who’s in? The list is short—and grim.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Elise Stefanik
Alex Wong/Getty Images
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Representative Elise Stefanik

The House of Representatives—or more specifically, a few Republicans therein—is gearing up to fire Speaker Kevin McCarthy. And even more specifically, those few Republicans really come down to one Republican. “I do intend to file a motion to vacate this week,” Florida GOP Congressman Matt Gaetz on Sunday. “I think we need to rip off the Band-Aid. I think we need to move on with new leadership that can be trustworthy.”

Gaetz has had it out for House GOP leadership since McCarthy failed to support the Florida Republican when he was implicated in a sex-trafficking scandal involving a minor in 2021. Gaetz was eventually not charged with the scheme for which his close associate Joel Greenberg was sentenced to 11 years in prison. And he and some other Republicans—how many is a key question—don’t like the fact that McCarthy, from their point of view, just struck a deal with Democrats to keep the government functioning. (News also came Monday morning that some other House Republicans are plotting to oust Gaetz.)

“The one thing that everybody has in common is that nobody trusts Kevin McCarthy,” Gaetz told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “The only way he will be House speaker at the end of this week is if Democrats bail him out.”

A motion to vacate the House speaker is essentially a recall vote. According to the House rules negotiated by McCarthy during his embarrassing 15-vote campaign to become speaker in January, motions to vacate the speaker are considered “privileged,” which means that once a member files the document, it must be voted on unless it gets withdrawn. Only members of the House GOP majority can file a motion to vacate, though Democrats would be able to vote on the motion once it comes to the floor.

“Move the fucking motion,” McCarthy dared his critics in a closed-door meeting on September 14. So far, no one has taken him up on the challenge, though McCarthy ally Garret Graves, a Louisiana Republican, suggested last week that he might enter a motion to vacate the embattled House Speaker as a means to take the threat off the table.

Graves bluffed. No motion to vacate was entered last week as McCarthy stumbled awkwardly through another government funding battle of his own creation. Meanwhile, printed copies of a motion to vacate by Gaetz have turned up in bathrooms around the Capitol complex.

A simple majority is needed to oust the speaker. By most conservative estimates, up to 30 Republicans, perhaps more, will vote to fire McCarthy, meaning the California Republican will need to make up those votes from Democrats. “I’ll survive,” said McCarthy on Sunday when asked by Margaret Brennan on Face the Nation about a motion to vacate; but this is far from clear.

The New Republic has asked dozens of House Democrats, including Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and Progressive Caucus Whip Greg Casar, whether there would be any appetite to save McCarthy when their far-right GOP colleagues drop the ax. “It’d have to be a helluva deal,” laughed one House Democrat who requested anonymity to discuss the internal deliberations of the caucus, “because seriously, fuck that guy.” Ilhan Omar told MSNBC on Sunday that she “can’t wait to vote to vacate.” And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told CNN: “It’s not up to Democrats to save Republicans. I don’t think we give up votes for free.”

Still, there are a number of more moderate Democrats who might back McCarthy. They represent purple districts, so a vote that they can sell back home as being above partisan politics makes a certain sense for them. Also, they wouldn’t even necessarily have to vote affirmatively for him. If they don’t vote, or vote “present,” they lower the threshold for McCarthy to win, since a candidate for speakers needs only a majority of those voting.

But Democrats will presumably demand a price for their support—a clean bill on aid to Ukraine, or even ending the Joe Biden impeachment inquiry. And that may be more than McCarthy is willing to promise.

So let’s say the House does fires McCarthy, which could happen as early as Wednesday. What comes next? Another way of putting it is: Who’d want the job?

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise was the heir apparent to McCarthy’s gavel until a cancer diagnosis put the Louisiana Republican in treatment for multiple myeloma in September. That leaves Minnesota’s Tom Emmer, the majority whip, and conference chair Elise Stefanik of New York as the top contenders to replace McCarthy.

Last week, House Republicans floated Emmer as a trial balloon to replace McCarthy. But Emmer is widely regarded as a joke within the House GOP conference for his inability to, well, whip votes. Just last month, Emmer twice failed to get the votes to pass a rule to fund the Pentagon, the congressional equivalent to a shooting guard flinging an open layup into the bleachers.

Just last week, Emmer’s whip operation humiliated McCarthy again by failing to count the votes on multiple appropriations bills that tanked on the House floor (recall that Nancy Pelosi, McCarthy’s Democratic predecessor as speaker, didn’t bring bills to the floor for which she didn’t have the votes).

For her part, Stefanik has mostly steered clear of the political limelight during McCarthy’s speakership. During the late-night vote sessions that would eventually elect McCarthy as speaker back in January, Stefanik sat dutifully by the podium in the House chamber, taking notes and avoiding the schoolyard fracases going on all around her.

Instead of shitposting her way into the political conversation, as she had during Donald Trump’s presidency, Stefanik has chosen a conspicuously low-key approach to building power, running Twitter campaigns to solicit feedback about the direction the GOP is headed, being a good foot soldier, and letting McCarthy and Scalise take credit for whatever she brought to the table. Beyond that, it’s hard to say how Stefanik is regarded by her House GOP colleagues. If they have an opinion about her, they have not been vocal about it.

Stefanik’s political evolution has been dramatic since she arrived in the House in 2014. She was heralded during her freshman term as a relatively reasonable, kindly House GOP freshman with a promising future in the conference. When Trump came to the White House, Stefanik quickly pivoted to become an archetype of the House GOP sellout, shifting her entire personality to fit the mold of an enraged MAGA flamethrower on Fox News.

If Stefanik has any principles left, they aren’t obvious; which is why it’s unlikely that Democrats would support her for speaker. So she would need virtually every House Republican to vote for her in the likely event McCarthy gets fired.

It’s possible that some Republicans have something else up their sleeve—remember, the speaker does not have to be a member of the House. But for now, the situation leaves Stefanik as the most obvious successor to McCarthy. While the most obvious choice is not necessarily the one that will prevail, it’s not like whoever replaces McCarthy will have a tough act to follow. If vacated, McCarthy will be laughed out of the House of Representatives to be replaced by someone who may well suffer the same fate. This is what happens when a party of prolific shitposters is required to actually govern: They fail miserably, to the detriment of us all.