Politics & Policy

The Surprisingly Diverse Appeal of Daniel Webster’s Candidacy for Speaker

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Quick: Can you name the one Republican who has run for House speaker twice this year?

Answer: Florida Representative Daniel Webster, an unassuming lawmaker with a rather moderate record who has emerged nonetheless as the darling of the House conservatives who pushed Boehner out of office.

After being drafted into a poorly organized coup attempt against John Boehner in January, Webster launched a quixotic run against House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.). Two weeks later, McCarthy has withdrawn and Webster is still standing — although not necessarily going anywhere. Most House Republicans regard his candidacy as a token protest against Boehner’s leadership. And yet, paradoxically, despite his obscurity on Capitol Hill, he has developed deep reservoirs of goodwill in diverse factions of his party, even while struggling to generate broad-based appeal.

Webster contributed to McCarthy’s demise as a candidate for speaker by earning the support of the House Freedom Caucus (HFC), a fractious group that had fought Boehner and that was threatening to deny McCarthy the support needed to take over as speaker. To win the endorsement, Webster needed 80 percent of the caucus to back him; he cleared that threshold easily, while McCarthy didn’t receive a single vote, according to an HFC member familiar with the process.

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And yet, Webster has friends in McCarthy’s wing of the party. Representative Thomas Rooney (R., Fla.), an ally of McCarthy’s and Boehner’s, admires Webster — “he’s a legend in Florida politics,” he says — and even tried to persuade him to run for majority leader against House Whip Steve Scalise. “For a good solid ten-plus years, Dan Webster was Florida politics — not just Republican, but both, and if he didn’t sign off on [something], it didn’t happen,” Rooney tells National Review.

Webster shies away from such praise. “The point there is, under the system I created, even though I had the power, I never used that power or misused it — I let the membership work through it,” he says. “Could the Democrats pass something without Republican votes? No, they couldn’t, but they did get a chance.”

Webster’s leadership of a well-regulated House made him a power broker and a political star in his home state.

That kind of collaboration backs up Webster’s promise to lead “a member-driven, principle-based Congress” — which, in practice, means starting legislative debates well in advance of any deadline in order to avoid crisis scenarios that can be solved only by negotiations between congressional leaders. “Let’s take up the most important issues first,” he says. “Let’s take up the reauthorizations first, let’s take up the appropriations bill first, not wait until four days beforehand, no one has mentioned anything, and, all of a sudden, somebody looks at their watch and says, ‘Hey, in four days, the government is going to run out of money.’”

Webster, by contrast, would refuse to adjourn for the August recess if the House had not passed the appropriations bills that would fund government according to Republican priorities. “We’re not even supposed to have a break in August if we have not passed the appropriations bills,” he says. “It’s in the House rules.”

He developed this fidelity to the rules while serving in the Florida House of Representatives. Elected in 1980, he spent 16 years as a member of what felt like a permanent minority. In that time, he became a procedural savant and moved up the ranks until Republicans gained a bare two-vote majority in 1996 and he emerged as the first GOP speaker that state had elected in 122 years.

#share#Webster’s leadership of a well-regulated House made him a power broker and a political star in his home state. “Leaders of the West Volusia Republican Club rushed through the regular-business portion of their luncheon meeting Wednesday,” the Orlando Sentinel reported in 1997. “They were eager to leave enough time for their guest speaker and yet not detain their members from their daily schedules. They needn’t have worried. Daniel Webster . . . knows how to meet a deadline.”

That reputation forms the backdrop for a direct shot at the tactics of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the outgoing speaker, John Boehner, who sought to “prove we could govern” by prioritizing issues that might garner bipartisan support early in the legislative session, even as Senate Democrats filibustered major bills. “Nothing happens in any legislative body that’s not purposeful,” Webster says. “They always press against a deadline, and I think that’s a power-based system, because you only end up with one choice.”

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Webster’s pledge to bring his Florida system to Congress might appeal to the federalist in his colleagues, but he hasn’t shown the communication skills needed to project a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” image. He believes, for instance, that Republicans can force President Obama to take the blame for shutting down the government in the event that he vetoes their spending bills. “If we finish early, they’ve got a hard case to make,” he says.

But he struggled to explain that point to Sean Hannity’s audience when asked what he would to counter Obama’s argument that Republicans were to blame for a hypothetical government shutdown. “I think you take your licks,” he said lamely. “If we do our job right, then we have everything to stand on. If we don’t do our job, we have everything to lose on.”

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Even so, Webster possesses the canniness to convince at least some congressional colleagues that his leadership would further their self-interest: He has promised to give every Republican “a take-home bill” — legislation that they could introduce and see passed out of the House, which would provide a victory they could tout to their constituents.

#related#That’s a dramatic shift from the current system. After writing a bill, lawmakers must “beg Boehner and McCarthy to bring it up [for a vote],” according to Rooney. “Or one of the committee chairmen might steal it from you, which is what happens,” he adds. “It’s enticing that Dan has that idea, and that Dan used to do that in Florida and can say to some of these guys in the Freedom Caucus that ‘you will have a bill on the floor.’ That’s attractive.”

Webster’s willingness to participate in the January coup attempt might prevent him from gaining a hearing, even among colleagues who might be sympathetic to his ideas. “I question his wisdom in voting for himself for speaker last time,” says a GOP congressman who would speak about Webster only on condition of anonymity. “He’s not the subject of a lot of discussion.”

Even if Webster’s insurgency fails to gain traction among mainstream House Republicans, he can count on his closest allies to respect him for his home-state success. “You will never meet somebody with the integrity of Dan Webster,” as one Florida Republican insisted last week.

That presidential candidate’s name? Jeb Bush.

Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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