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Gaetz’s war against McCarthy could leave Dems playing kingmaker

By Melanie Zanona, Annie Grayer, Lauren Fox and Manu Raju, CNN

(CNN) — With the clock ticking down toward a government shutdown, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz approached a Democratic lawmaker on the House floor this week with a surprising pitch.

Gaetz, who has been threatening Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s speakership almost daily, explained that his rebellion is motivated by a desire to find new leadership that keeps their word, tells the truth, and adheres to regular order – a message that this Democrat described to CNN as “utterly reasonable.”

Gaetz then floated veteran Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma and House GOP Whip Tom Emmer of Minnesota as two alternative examples he had in mind, and then attempted to gauge whether this member would be open to supporting an effort to oust McCarthy. The Democrat told CNN there’s been internal discussions about a wide range of potential asks – from power-sharing agreements to policy ideas.

“In the last 48 hours, he’s not just talking to Democrats. I’m talking about like, the furthest left most progressive Democrats to moderates,” the House Democrat told CNN. “He’s a salesman right now.”

Asked about working with Democrats on his McCarthy ouster effort, Gaetz said: “The subject has come up, but it’s not my focus.” He also emphasized has not tried to offer any concessions to Democrats in exchange for their help.

“I have made no offer to Democrats and I would not,” he said.

But McCarthy’s critics aren’t the only ones privately courting House Democrats to play for their team in the ongoing speaker drama. GOP moderates and pragmatic members have also been working Democrats on a plan to get them out of a likely government shutdown and build a consensus to save McCarthy if he faces a so-called “motion to vacate” the speaker’s chair – an effort that has taken on more urgency since a House GOP stopgap bill failed on the floor Friday at the hands of conservative hardliners.

“There’s a number of us … that are prepared to take the next action we need to take,” said GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, who is working with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to circumvent leadership if there is a stalemate in the House – a process known as a discharge petition.

The wheeling-and-dealing illustrates how Democrats are now caught in the crosshairs of the GOP’s ongoing civil war, which has catapulted Congress to the brink of a government shutdown. Democrats, who typically yield little power in the minority, now find themselves an in-demand constituency for a warring Republican party.

With their votes up for grabs, Democrats are starting to weigh their asking price for what would be a difficult decision: either save McCarthy or team up with one of his chief antagonists to oust McCarthy and throw the House into chaos. Democrats, however, may have no choice but to play a role in McCarthy’s fate if a removal vote comes to the floor.

For their part, Democratic leaders are counseling their members to avoid getting locked into a position over McCarthy’s speakership, not wanting to do anything proactively, knowing that a misstep could have major ramifications for the House and their party.

On Friday, House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries remained non-committal about how he would handle a potential vote to oust McCarthy.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he told CNN.

‘It could really go either way’

Gaetz knows he will likely need most – if not all – House Democrats behind him in order to succeed in removing McCarthy, which would require a majority of the chamber.

“Matt is trying to feel us out, because remember, he needs every single solitary Democrat in order to oust McCarthy,” another Democrat lawmaker told CNN, though they emphasized the conversations were still premature.

Asked where most Democrats will land on the issue, the member said: “My pulse read is that it could really go either way.”

Those who want to see McCarthy gone will be less inclined to go that chaotic route in the midst of a government shutdown (which is one of the reasons why Gaetz wants to see the funding fight play out first) and argue that an alternative candidate needs to come forward.

“What I did say to Matt, is we need to get through the shutdown. We need to get a CR. So timing is important,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told CNN. “I also told him something I’ve learned in my seven years: you can’t run nobody against somebody. So you guys, we don’t know who you’re going to put forward. So it’s going to help us if you have somebody who’s more reasonable.”

The goal, Democratic sources say, is to have a unified position if their votes are needed to either boot McCarthy from the speakership or give him the votes to spare his job. But in either scenario, Democrats say they won’t offer their help without serious concessions in return.

And there are disagreements within the caucus about whether it is better to make a deal with McCarthy, a known entity, or take a chance on an unknown, a particularly daunting ask since Republicans have yet to coalesce around one individual. Members who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity insisted that the conversations had not reached any serious decision-making stage.

“I think leadership is going to have to hold our problem makers in line and tell them they can’t do something that’s going to hurt us as Democrats,” one Democratic lawmaker said.

For many Democrats, the idea of saving McCarthy – by voting to table or vote present on a measure to oust him – is unimaginable, meaning they may be more inclined to side with Gaetz. The speaker, they argue, has violated their trust by launching an impeachment inquiry and going back on an agreement he struck with the White House on spending levels.

“I’m not a cheap date,” one Democrat said when asked how they were thinking about the push and pull. “The deal is McCarthy created this mess and McCarthy has to deal with it.”

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