The House Freedom Caucus is pushing for a congressional rule change that would make it easier to remove a House speaker in exchange for its support in Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's ascension to the post.
The Freedom Caucus is angling to include a provision within the House Rules package allowing for any member to offer at any time motion to vacate the speaker's chair – a change it will push for assuming Republicans take control of the House. The parliamentary gambit would let hardline members force a vote on retaining the speaker, a process that conservatives used to paralyze the House during the Tea Party era.
"Every member of Congress was elected to legislate on behalf of their constituents," said Rep. Andy Biggs, an Arizona Republican and former leader of the Freedom Caucus. "To do that, members must be able to hold their own leadership accountable."
Allowing members to offer a motion to vacate the chair is seen as an insurance policy by hardline Republicans. Many fear that once entrusted with the speaker's gavel, McCarthy will refuse to threaten a partial government shutdown in an effort to get President Biden to make concessions on policy.
Motions to vacate the chair were deployed only twice between 1910 and 2015. In the first instance, Democrats unsuccessfully attempted to oust GOP Speaker Joseph Gurney Cannon for ruling with what many claimed was an iron fist. The vote eventually failed after Republicans refused to buck their leader.
It was threatened again in July 2015 by then-Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows of North Carolina. Meadows sought to force a vote on Republican Speaker John Boehner's decision to strip him from the House Oversight Committee for voting against a trade bill.
Boehner's allies within leadership prevented the motion from going directly to the floor, instead sending it to the House Rules Committee for consideration. Three months later, Boehner resigned after conservatives indicated they would not drop the issue.
In the aftermath of Boehner's resignation, McCarthy made a bid for speaker but was forced to abandon that goal after opposition from the Freedom Caucus. Since Republican only held a narrow majority, the nearly two dozen member group had veto power.
Boehner's successor as speaker, Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, only agreed to run for the top spot after receiving a pledge from the Freedom Caucus that it would not try and oust him in the same manner.
When Democrats took control of the House in 2018, Speaker Nancy Pelosi changed the chamber's rules to specify that only a party leader could offer a motion to vacate.
"The House can't function if anyone can take the entire chamber hostage at any point over a petty disagreement with the speaker," said a senior House Republican aide said at the time.
Biggs, who served as the president of Arizona State Senate before running for Congress, disagrees.
"The House Freedom Caucus has long called for this change – along with other changes to return power back to the body – and any true leader should be willing to subject themselves to that accountability," he said.
The fight over the motion to vacate comes as Republicans prepare to take power after a much-predicted GOP wave failed to materialize on election night.
At the moment, the Republican majority looks to be anywhere between 218 seats, the bare minimum needed to control the House, and 230 seats. The latter would constitute a sweep of all outstanding races, including some in which Democrats are favored, but still falls far short of the 60 seats McCarthy once said were possible of winning.
The Freedom Caucus has more than two-dozen members and has been working to educate new members on how to navigate pressure from leadership. The group knows that any path for McCarthy to get to 218, the number needed to win a speakership election on the House floor, goes through them.
As such, the group is set on reforming House rules to give members more power and say in the legislative process. As part of that push, the Freedom Caucus also wants to enact a "majority of the majority" rule that would require any legislation passed by the House to be supported by at least a majority of the GOP conference.
It also wants to permanently ban congressional earmarks, require that legislation be publicly available for at least 72 hours before a vote takes place, and diversify the steering committee that has power over committee assignments.
Officially, restoring the ability of any member to offer a motion to vacate the chair is part of that list. House Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry, however, said there were no red lines for the group.
"We have a large list of rules changes that we want to see adopted," said Perry, R-Pa. "The more changes that are adopted to empower members, the less important the motion to vacate the chair becomes. But the more power that is centralized in leadership and the speaker's office, the more important the motion to vacate becomes."
Another stalwart member of the House Freedom put it more directly.
"Kevin [McCarthy] can decide now if he wants to give power back to the committees and the individuals members, or he can face votes on his speakership every other month," said the member. "The choice is his alone."