Motion to Vacate Roulette

Vote For Speaker Of The House Stretches Into Fourth Day
The imperiled Long Island fabulist George Santos might not be the only conference member that Kevin McCarthy risks losing this term. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
January 12, 2023

It turns out that the imperiled Long Island fabulist George Santos might not be the only conference member that Kevin McCarthy risks losing this term. The new House Speaker, who must navigate a razor-thin majority in which he can currently only lose four votes to pass partisan legislation, has another unforeseen problem on his horizon. Multiple members have told me that they are worried that Vern Buchanan, the 71-year-old from Florida, is loose in the saddle and contemplating retirement after losing his chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means committee this week. Buchanan told McCarthy he was furious that he was passed over for a much younger member, Rep. Jason Smith, who has become a bit of a speaker’s pet. 

The McCarthy-Buchanan standoff is fascinating and multi-layered. On the one hand, Buchanan doesn’t need to kiss McCarthy’s ring. He’s one of the wealthiest members of congress, with a car dealership fortune worth more than $100 million. He can do whatever he wants, including reciprocating McCarthy’s political surprise with one of his own, which has some speculating that Buchanan could step down within months. Even under the best circumstances, in which Ron DeSantis immediately called a special election, McCarthy would be out a crucial vote for a couple months, maybe more. (Buchanan’s political advisor Max Goodman told me, “Vern has no plans to retire and looks forward to continuing his work on behalf of his district and the American people.”)

Buchanan’s vote matters, but so does his ego. No one wants to alienate a deep-pocketed reliable fundraiser, who could be valuable outside of Congress. Furthermore, Buchanan isn’t a rash person, and he’s also incentivized to cooperate with the party. After all, his son, James Buchanan, a Florida state legislator, has been primed for his seat.

Meanwhile, the pressure on Santos to resign has only intensified. This week, members of the Long Island G.O.P., in addition to four Republican congressmen from New York, called for his ouster. His office has become a veritable stakeout zone for the news networks. 

Those hoping that an F.E.C. violation might spur a resignation shouldn’t hold their breath, either. Those complaints often take years to investigate, unless they rise beyond a certain monetary threshold and the D.O.J. takes over. McCarthy almost certainly won’t force his departure since the party would likely lose the seat in a special election in the Biden +8 district. And Santos, given his ostensible ability to shape-shift his reality, may be able to emotionally withstand these calls for his resignation. 

“Vacate” Roulette

In the meantime, the latest parlor game on Capitol Hill has turned to hypothesizing the event that will eventually trigger the one-vote motion to vacate that McCarthy agreed to in order to become speaker. Will it be Trump-related? Gaetz-induced? Debt ceiling related? It’s anyone’s guess. 

Until then, attendance is critical for Republicans, with every vote needed to pass legislation. But Democrats need to show up too. Absences give McCarthy more wiggle room, lowering the threshold to reach a majority. Perhaps that’s why members on both sides of the aisle are lamenting the end of proxy voting—a Covid era perk that allowed Marjorie Taylor Greene to vacation in Costa Rica while the omnibus was being voted on. 

One freshman Democrat recalled to me with disgust the number of members who are voting while Covid-positive (ostensibly just Democrats since Republicans test less frequently) just to keep the roll call as tight as possible so that the margins will be impossible for McCarthy. This member described the hallway outside of the House floor as a veritable hospital waiting area, filled with masked members coughing. 

Ted Cruz Sitting Out ‘24?

On the Senate side, I’m hearing there’s one 2024 hopeful who will take a pass this cycle to focus on securing his Senate seat: Ted Cruz. Despite his second place showing in the 2016 presidential primary, the word from Cruz-world is that he’s more fixated on winning re-election, particularly after Beto O’Rourke’s strong challenge in 2018 for his Senate seat. Of course, if a lane was truly open in 2024, he would jump in. So we’ll see. (His office pointed me to a statement he made in November, “I’m running for reelection in the Senate, I’m focused on the battles in the United States Senate.”)

But I’m told that Cruz, who is the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, is not leaving things up to chance in Texas, and his team is preparing for everyone on the Democratic side, from Mark Cuban to Matthew McConaughey to Julian Castro to, who knows, a Fourth Coming of Beto. Aides at the National Republican Senatorial Committee have already read Mcconaughey’s bestselling book, Greenlights, for some of the more controversial and cringey anecdotes that will be immediately clipped for ads, I’m told. Alright, alright, alright…. 

Lucas Kunce’s Abrams Playbook

In Missouri, Democrat and Marine veteran Lucas Kunce is gearing up to take on Josh Hawley in what looks like a campaign modeled after Tim Ryan’s populist Senate campaign in Ohio, albeit with John Fetterman’s winning digital team. Politico reports that Kunce has hired The Middle Seat Consulting, which created a powerful digital campaign that vilified Dr. Oz as a carpetbagger, for a candidate who couldn’t campaign traditionally on account of health reasons. Kunce, who launched his campaign with two appearances on MSNBC—with Joy Reid and on Morning Joe—is surely running a cable news candidacy playbook to raise millions from out-of-state ActBlue small-dollar donors who lust after a candidate who can destroy liberal boogeyman Hawley. 

If he keeps up the national TV appearances and wins the primary, which he lost last cycle against Trudy Busch Valentine for Roy Blunt’s open seat, the young, photogenic veteran Kunce will surely become a bright shiny object in the Democratic party a la Stacy Abrams in Georgia and Beto in Texas. He’ll raise a ton of money for a seat that’s nearly impossible for Democrats to win, raising hopes on a national level and then risking privately infuriating cynical insiders when it doesn’t work out. 

Bridge to Tallahassee

Anyone trying to curry favor with G.O.P. ‘24 frontish-runner Ron DeSantis would be smart to get to know Rep. Laurel Lee, the Republican freshman from Florida’s 15th district who previously served as DeSantis’s Secretary of State. While DeSantis’s inner circle is extremely small (some would argue it’s just him and his wife Casey), Lee is seen as an inroad to DeSantis, who is rarely in Washington these days. Yes, DeSantis was previously a member of Congress, but he doesn’t have many relationships on the Hill, where he was known for his prickly demeanor, not for making friends.

And the wariness cuts both ways. D.C. Republicans were slow to warm up to DeSantis, even after he entered the Florida gubernatorial race in 2018, holding back their enthusiasm until after DeSantis eked out a win. Gaetz, who served on DeSantis’s gubernatorial transition team, has always been an ally, but for those still furious about Gaetz’s antics last week, Lee might be the better bridge. 

Rick Scott’s Breakfast Club

With the Senate still out of session, some are wondering if Rick Scott’s breakfast club may actually cause heartburn for Mitch McConnell. I’m told from a Scott aide that the group of six senators, all of whom voted for Scott over McConnell for minority leader, plan to meet every week for breakfast when the Senate is in session. As for Scott, he’s not letting up after losing to McConnell in the leadership race, and he’s clearly trying to play the outside-the-dome media game by running a “No Regrets” national ad campaign on Fox News—featuring himself, naturally. (I reported after the midterms that Scott hoped to launch this seven-figure campaign before he challenged McConnell for leadership, but didn’t have the time.) Instead, he’s continuing the campaign to win over the Ben Shapiros of the world with a message accusing McConnell of “caving in” to Democrats, while building his name I.D. for a potential 2024 run. 

And Scott’s breakfast club is courting new members. The first meeting was attended by Scott plus Senators Mike Lee, Lindsey Graham, Ron Johnson, Ted Cruz and Mike Braun. But that number could possibly double with the addition of other McConnell skeptics, such as Cynthia Lummis, Josh Hawley, Eric Schmitt, Tommy Tuberville, J.D. Vance and Rand Paul. Sure it’s just breakfast, but maybe this loosely formed, decentralized group could elevate through their cause with their relationships with the right-wing media. “There’s more pleasure than pain going up against McConnell, it just helps your brand,” as an aide to a McConnell “no” vote explained.

The Musk RT

For Republican members of Congress and the staffers that write their tweets, it used to be all about crafting a message that would get that precious retweet from Trump. But since Truth just isn’t Twitter, Republican communications aides are looking to another conservative influencer to engage with—Elon Musk. A model of success was North Carolina Congressman Dan Bishop’s tweets on the omnibus spending bill that got him a “Very informative thread” and a “worth reading” from Musk, followed by an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show. The new double-whammy endorsement. 

And, Finally, a Word About Yellin’s Successor Sweepstakes…

Back in December, I wrote about an intense debate that the Biden administration was having about whether to replace Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen with one of Biden’s favorite cabinet members, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, which would open up that slot for Terry McAuliffe to fulfill his dream of becoming Commerce Secretary. Well, the dysfunction of McCarthy’s new Congress has all but dashed that from happening. Bloomberg is reporting that Biden asked Yellen to stay. 

This comes amid fears of a fast-approaching debt ceiling showdown this summer, the potential for a financial flare-up, economic downturn, and possible difficulty confirming another Treasury secretary. The administration wanted to project stability by keeping Yellen, even if she is prone to political flubs. That doesn’t mean that Raimondo, who has been an exceptionally high-profile Commerce Secretary, won’t ascend to Treasury before the end of the term, I’m told. Two years is a long time. In the meantime, she’s brought on Adrienne Elrod, a top communications aide and former Biden and Clinton campaign alum, to help elevate her work on CHIPs.