Facing renewed threats to his speakership, Kevin McCarthy is making a strategic bet: his critics don’t have the votes to oust him – and if they do, he’ll grind it out on the floor again as he did back in January.

The speaker is fully prepared to ride out the coming storm and move ahead with a short-term spending bill to fund the government, despite repeated warnings from his right flank that such a move would result in a floor vote to remove him, called the motion to vacate the chair.

In a bold display of his confidence, a fired-up McCarthy made clear in a conference-wide meeting Thursday morning that he is not intimidated by the threats, and essentially dared his detractors to proceed.

“Move the f***ing motion,” he said, according to four sources in the room.

McCarthy echoed a similar sentiment – sans swear words – in front of the cameras following the closed-door meeting.

“Threats don’t matter, and sometimes people do those things because of personal things and that’s all fine,” McCarthy told reporters. “You know what, if it takes a fight, I’ll have a fight.”

His critics, though, aren’t backing down.

“I’m concerned for the speaker that he seems to be a little rattled and unhinged at a time when we need focus and strong effort,” Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, a long-time thorn in the side of leadership, told CNN. “Whether or not McCarthy faces a motion to vacate is within his own hands. All he has to do is come into compliance with the deal we made in January.”

But it’s a risky gamble for the speaker, who eight months on the job is facing a remarkable level of turmoil inside the House GOP as they struggle to pass even party-line spending bills and remain fiercely divided over a high-stakes push to impeach President Joe Biden. And just the prospect of repeated votes on his ouster, even if they fail – as Gaetz has promised – threatens to paralyze business in the House and put the spotlight squarely on the divisions inside the GOP during a crucial moment of governing.

While Gaetz has been the face of the McCarthy resistance, at least a half dozen other GOP members told CNN they are open to supporting a motion to vacate the speaker’s chair if it comes to the floor – putting the effort on the brink of passage, an effort that has never succeeded before in the history of the chamber.

And in a sign of the seriousness of the situation, the topic has also come up in recent House Freedom Caucus meetings, according to GOP sources, with some members feeling like McCarthy violated his terms to become speaker. If all Democrats support the move, as many of them are signaling they would, it would take just five Republicans to succeed, thrusting the House into chaos. At that point, the House would be paralyzed until a new speaker is elected.

“I agree with a lot of what (Gaetz) said and more importantly, so do my voters,” Rep. Eli Crane of Arizona, a member of the hardline Freedom Caucus, told CNN. “So, yeah, it is absolutely something I’d entertain.”

Added Rep. Dan Bishop of North Carolina, another conservative hardliner: “I would support it if somebody brings it.”

And several others, including Reps. Bob Good of Virginia, Matt Rosendale of Montana, Ralph Norman of South Carolina and Chip Roy of Texas – all members who initially opposed McCarthy’s speakership in January – have not ruled out backing such an effort.

Rosendale told CNN: “We’ve got a lot of things that we’re going to have to discuss over the next couple of weeks and that is gonna play a critical role in any motion that’s made and certainly the outcome of it. But you can’t continue to get your support from the Democrat conference, and then think that you’re gonna maintain your leadership with the Republican Conference.”

“I think Speaker McCarthy has a path to choose,” Good said, calling on him to pass government funding bills with GOP support and not rely on Democrats. “I certainly hope he chooses the former. We expect him to do that and we expect to hold him accountable to do that.”

Democrats, meanwhile, plan to follow the lead of House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, who has said he would not engage in hypotheticals and has not made any recommendations to his caucus yet about how to vote on a motion to vacate. But many of them are making clear they’re not looking to bail out the speaker.

“Preserving a Republican speakership is a Republican responsibility,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, told CNN. “Absolutely (the onus) is on them”

This is not the first time that McCarthy and Gaetz have squared off.

During the intense speaker’s race, Gaetz led the opposition against McCarthy for 15 rounds of voting that culminated in an extraordinary confrontation between the two men on the House floor until Gaetz – lacking a clear alternative candidate – ultimately relented and helped seal McCarthy’s victory.

That dynamic is why McCarthy allies once again are dismissing the renewed threats to his speakership, though they remain frustrated with their hardline colleagues and are beginning to discuss ways to counter the Freedom Caucus demands.

“It’s unacceptable what is going on and you’re talking about a very small number and the rest of us can’t just sit still and get walked over,” said Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, who represents a Biden-won district.

McCarthy’s camp always knew the motion to vacate would be hanging over his speakership. As part of his deal to become speaker, McCarthy gave any single member the power to call for a floor vote on removing him.

But if the House votes to remove him, it’s uncertain any other Republican can get the 218 votes needed to succeed him to become speaker. So McCarthy’s allies believe he should continue to put his name on the ballot until ultimately his critics relent and let him keep the gavel.

And while some of the far right are making their distaste for the speaker’s leadership known, McCarthy still maintains the support of one key Freedom Caucus ally: Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican who has the ear of the right.

Jordan said he “totally disagrees” with any effort to oust McCarthy.

“That’s ridiculous,” Jordan said, adding that he’s expressed that opinion to his colleagues.

Rep. Dusty Johnson, a Republican from South Dakota, said McCarthy “does not let these little things get under his skin.”

“Nothing has come easy for this guy in the last nine months,” Johnson said. “He has an incredible optimism and he’s got a resilience. Like all of us, he does occasionally get frustrated by how many members including myself can be knuckleheads in any given day. But listen, I mean he understands that he is the right guy at this moment and he is not going to be dissuaded that the job is hard.”

Rep. Tim Burchett, a conservative Tennessee Republican, added: “He’s like Tony Soprano. Everybody thinks they’re going to kill him, and he comes out alive.”

Early on as speaker, McCarthy made a point to bring the different factions of his conference together, to keep all sides talking as Republicans navigated their narrow majority. Gaetz regularly attended those meetings.

But after McCarthy cut a deal with Democrats to raise the debt ceiling this summer, the trust and communication between Gaetz and McCarthy broke down – and the rhetoric has gotten personal. Gaetz, who has publicly called McCarthy “pathetic” and a “liar,” went to the House floor on Tuesday, the day the House returned after a six-week recess, with a list of demands he needed from McCarthy in order to avoid a motion to vacate, including lower spending levels, votes on specific bills and an immediate subpoena to Hunter Biden.

McCarthy, in turn, has said Gaetz is just acting out in response to a reopened Ethics probe into the Florida Republican, even though the speaker has maintained he is not involved.

“Let me be very clear with you. Matt is upset about an ethics complaint,” McCarthy told CNN on Wednesday. “I don’t care what they threaten against me, I’m not going to interject into an independent committee like ethics.”

Gaetz, however, is undeterred. He accused McCarthy of initiating an impeachment inquiry to give himself political cover, and vowed this week: “If we have to begin every single day in Congress with the prayer, the pledge and the motion to vacate then so be it.”

Others, however, take that as a sign Gaetz doesn’t have the support to succeed.

“He said that he would do it every day. So it doesn’t indicate that he has a lot of confidence that it’s going to pass the first time,” said Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado, who has opposed a lot of the leadership’s agenda this year.

Still, there are clear signs of unrest on the right. Norman said, “on spending, he’s let us down.”

GOP Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona said: “The motion to vacate is a tool that should be available. It’s just a matter of whether it really were to come to pass.”

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia speaks during a subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill on July 18, 2023 in Washington, DC.

As House Republicans engage in open warfare, they must figure out a path to avoid a government shutdown. McCarthy has been laboring to pass individual spending bills with GOP votes to give them more leverage with the Senate, which has passed several bipartisan funding bills. But leadership had to pull a bill on defense spending this week because hardliners wouldn’t even unite around a procedural vote, insisting they get a commitment from McCarthy to lower spending levels, among other things.

Behind closed-doors on Wednesday, McCarthy warned Republicans they would lose the shutdown fight if they don’t start passing spending bills, and said they will stay in session starting next week until the government is funded. But many in his conference have threatened that once McCarthy makes compromises with Democrats to fund the government, all bets are off on his speakership.

One idea being discussed by leaders of the Freedom Caucus and centrist leaning Main Street Caucus is attaching elements of a House GOP border security package to a short-term funding bill. Leadership is aware of the discussions but not actively involved, and the situation is fluid, GOP sources said. That could be a way to appease conservatives – and stave off the threats to McCarthy’s speakership – but could risk a shutdown, as it would be a non-starter in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Roy, who said he will oppose a short-term spending bill unless it includes a House GOP border security package, said Wednesday’s meeting was “contentious.”

“A lot of us are frustrated,” he said. “We are trying to figure out how to, frankly, do the work that’s not being done by virtually anyone else in this town.”

But Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a McCarthy ally, applauded the speaker and has derided her former colleagues in the House Freedom Caucus, who kicked her out earlier this summer for being too cozy with leadership.

“He told the entire conference if you want to throw in a motion to vacate, that’s fine. I didn’t survive 15 rounds for nothing and I’ll survive another 50 rounds,” Greene said.

Asked specifically about Gaetz, Greene said she considers him a close friend and that “we may have to come to blows inside our conference and work it out, but I think you’ll see good things coming.”

Still, between the growing angst in his conference and standstill over how to fund the government, McCarthy admitted that this week did not go as he had planned.

“I always have a plan that doesn’t mean it happens. I had a plan for this week, didn’t turn out exactly as I had planned,” he said Thursday.

This story and headline have been updated with additional developments.

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