House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., at the Capitol on Sept. 30, 2023.

Democrats are torn on whether to rescue Speaker Kevin McCarthy

WASHINGTON — House Democrats are on the brink of an unusual decision now that Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., has followed through on a threat to force a vote to overthrow Speaker Kevin McCarthy, which could put Democrats in the position of deciding whether to help him keep his job.

Underneath the surface, it’s a difficult question that has sparked disagreements, according to more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers and aides who shared their thoughts about the dynamic on the condition of anonymity to avoid getting ahead of leadership.

If Gaetz assembles even a handful of Republican votes to oust McCarthy, R-Calif., the speaker’s survival could hinge on whether Democrats step in and rescue him. They wouldn’t have to vote directly in favor of keeping McCarthy on — voting “present” would reduce the number of GOP votes McCarthy needs to hold on to the gavel.

Gaetz made the motion Monday night, but it remains unclear whether he has the votes. The fluid situation presents high risks and high rewards, depending on how House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and other Democrats play their cards.

“We haven’t had a discussion about any hypothetical motion to vacate. And we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” Jeffries said Saturday after Democrats helped pass a short-term bill to avert a government shutdown.

A source close to Democratic leadership said that if there is an arrangement to be made, the onus falls squarely on McCarthy to reach out to Democratic leaders, which he hasn’t done yet.

Democrats unsure whether they would bail out McCarthy in speakership challenge

Oct. 2, 202302:40

Asked Monday whether he’ll need Democrats to survive a “motion to vacate,” McCarthy shrugged it off.

“You’d have to ask them. I don’t know. I’m just going to focus on doing the work I’m supposed to do,” he said. “I think this is a question to the institution itself. I know in the past, the other leaders together believed that this should never be in play.”

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McCarthy spoke before Gaetz introduced his motion to remove him as speaker.

Concessions and swing district needs

Some Democrats see merit to the idea, especially if they can extract concessions from McCarthy in a body where the minority has precious little power. It might be better to stick with “the devil you know” if Democrats can get something out of it, an aide said. They worry that the alternative would be more extreme if Gaetz and his far-right allies end up crowning McCarthy’s successor.

Democrats in purple or red districts can also present it as a people-above-politics vote to avoid chaos in the House, which could help them in tough 2024 elections.

“I welcome those conversations,” Rep. Wiley Nickel, D-N.C., who represents a swing district, said Sunday on MSNBC when he was asked whether he’d rescue McCarthy. “The question just is: What’s the deal?”

“We’re going to all look to our leader, Hakeem Jeffries, to make sure that we have a fair deal,” he said. “But I’m somebody, certainly, who could be open to making that kind of vote if there’s a good deal that gets the things done that we’ve got to do for my constituents.”

While some Democrats take a wait-and-see approach to saving McCarthy, others have firmly ruled it out.

“Not my monkey; not my circus. I’m a hard no,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., whom McCarthy removed from the House Intelligence Committee this year.

Other Democrats also believe it’d be a bad idea to bail out a speaker who launched an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden without evidence of wrongdoing. They say the centrists who might cast votes to save McCarthy are the same ones being targeted for defeat next fall by his multimillion-dollar war chest.

Rep. Ann Kuster, D-N.H., who leads the moderate New Democrat Coalition, said McCarthy’s impeachment inquiry and efforts to defeat a number of her vulnerable members “gives us pause” when it comes to rescuing him. But she said they’re open-minded, depending on what is negotiated.

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Some opponents argue that Democrats’ rescuing McCarthy without major concessions — no matter the procedural machinations — would be a fruitless exercise that would make them look like a “cheap date,” in the words of one aide.

‘Trust issues’

And there’s the question of whether they can trust McCarthy to honor any agreement.

“We have a lot of trust issues,” House Minority Whip Katherine Clark, D-Mass., said in an interview. “Every time he has made a promise, he has immediately then rolled back and gone and catered and capitulated to an extreme agenda. He gave the gavel to Marjorie Taylor Greene after 15 rounds, and he has not reclaimed it for the people that he serves.”

The trust deficit was evident Saturday when Democratic leaders bought time to scrub the funding bill offered by McCarthy to make sure he wasn’t trying to sneak through any poison pills.

A senior Democratic aide cited McCarthy’s decision to renege on the two-year budget deal with Biden, his move to wage partisan warfare over the normally bipartisan defense policy bill and his decision to unilaterally launch an impeachment inquiry after having first said he wouldn’t do it without a vote of the full House.

“If you scratch beneath the surface, there are a million different things people are going to have to grapple with if this is going to be framed as a vote to save or depose the speaker,” the aide said. “Whatever gets discussed has to have durability.”

On Sunday, Clark put Democrats on notice that votes on a motion to vacate “could occur at any time,” according to a letter viewed by NBC News; once a motion is triggered, a vote needs to occur within two legislative days.

In that scenario, Clark wrote, Democrats “will have a Caucus wide discussion on how to address the motion to best meet the needs of the American people.”

Sahil Kapur

Sahil Kapur is a senior national political reporter for NBC News.

Ryan Nobles, Scott Wong, Garrett Haake and Rebecca Kaplancontributed.