Florida Congressman Dan Webster’s quixotic push to become speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives received an unexpected boost Thursday when House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy stunned the political world and abruptly withdrew from the race to replace John Boehner.
“It’s been a whirlwind day,” said Webster, a Winter Garden Republican, after spending the afternoon doing media interviews and making phone calls to colleagues detailing his pitch for reforming the process.
The former speaker of the Florida House received his first surge of support Wednesday when members of the House Freedom Caucus — a group of about 40 conservative Republicans — announced that they planned to vote for the Florida lawmaker, saying a McCarthy speakership would be an extension of Boehner’s.
Webster, 66, said that he does not consider himself the new favorite, but he does see McCarthy’s decision to drop out as a testament to the fact that the rank-and-file membership want a change. Central to his pitch is his record of reform in the Florida House, after Florida Democrats narrowly lost their majority in 1996 and he became speaker with a 61-59 majority.
“Everyone knows this is a top-down process, and my plan is to flatten the pyramid of power so every member has an opportunity to be successful,” he said.
The departure of McCarthy, R-California, an embattled, but clear favorite to win the nomination, left the race with no readily apparent successor, though House leaders were said to be approaching Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Ryan said through a spokesman that he did not want the job.
Members had expected to choose McCarthy as their nominee for speaker and he then would have stood for a vote before the full 435-member House on Oct. 29. But the vote was postponed after McCarthy told colleagues Thursday he believed his party was “deeply divided and needs to unite behind one leader.”
Both Webster and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, are considered dark horse candidates. And Webster, who was elected in 2010 in the Tea Party wave, is at a fundamental disadvantage.
The protracted legal fight over Florida’s congressional districts is likely to dismantle Webster’s Orlando-based district. Each of the maps a Tallahassee circuit court judge must choose from is drawn in a way that favors a Hispanic Democrat. Webster appeared before a legislative committee in August and admitted he might not be elected to it.
Webster dismissed the impact of his uncertain district is having on his speakership prospects.
“There are still lawsuits and a three-judge federal panel that have to weigh in on this,” he said. “It’s a long way from home. It’s not hurting my chances.”
Webster also dismissed speculation that he could be named speaker of the House without being elected, something neither the House rules nor federal constitution require. “It’s procedurally possible but practically impossible,” he said. “It’s never happened before, and it’s not going to happen now.”
Meanwhile, Webster, an engineer by trade, is reaching for the same tools he used during his 28 years in the Legislature to amass support in Congress.
When Republicans took control of the Florida House in 1996, Democrats spoke of how Webster home-schooled his children, fervently supported public prayer and warned that their chamber would lurch to the right under his leadership. By the end of his first session in 1997, Democrats had a different assessment.
“Although it’s a little more difficult getting some things done, the Republicans have been very fair and open,” the late Rep. Jack Tobin, a Broward Democrat told the Miami Herald then.
He was among the Democrats assigned to offices on the Capitol’s 14th floor, high above the power suites they used to roam and when he and other Democrats complained about the distance, Webster responded by reserving an elevator for their exclusive use before and after every floor session.
It was all a part of Webster’s attempt to earn his members’ trust so that he could empower them with responsibility for which they would be held accountable.
Webster, who was Florida House Speaker from 1996-98, believes a new approach is in order if the Republican Party is going to save itself from the internecine fighting that is tearing at its core.
“If principles don’t determine what you are going to pass or do, then power will,” he explained. “Power says if you are a committee chairman your idea is good only because you have got power. Under a principle-based system, you push down the power and then you have to judge things exactly as they are.”
As the first Republican House Speaker since Reconstruction in Florida, Webster said his fellow Republicans “were hungry to do to Democrats what they had done to us for 100 years. It’s kind of natural.” But Webster rejected that approach.
“I told them … It’s going to matter what your idea says, and we’re going to judge it on that basis,” he said.
Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Boca Raton, who served in the Florida House when Webster was speaker, said Democrats were leery about Webster’s ascension because “he was known to be extreme in his social views.” Instead, she said, “he was much fairer than the others” who would succeed him.
“He had to govern by letting ideas come up and be voted on, he almost didn’t have a choice,” she said, noting that Republicans held a narrow majority. But, she added, “I think that is his philosophy.”
She added that Webster was a “little trickster,” giving Democrats vice-chairmanships on committees, but getting a little chuckle by pairing them “with people he thought we were feuding with.”
On the House floor, he did the same: He sat Frankel next to yet-to-be House Speaker John Thrasher “because he thought we would kill each other.” They did not.
Now serving together in Congress and on the House Transportation Committee, she said they’ve worked closely on a number of issues, including Everglades restoration efforts.
“We obviously have huge political differences, but I have a great deal of respect for him,” she said.
Webster’s reforms as speaker included rewriting House rules, eliminating 72 subcommittees and reducing the size of other committees. He created a council that gave two-thirds of the chamber the power to decide which legislation is heard. Members were allowed to offer amendments to any bills. The most important bills were taken up first on the floor, instead of waiting to the final hours of the final day, and meetings were to end by 6 p.m. sharp to avoid what he called “the late-night negotiations and back-room deals.”
Keeping his promise to end on time, Webster ended the final day of session at 6 p.m. and he and Senate President Toni Jennings celebrated by raising a glass of orange juice in the Capitol rotunda, with the late former Gov. Lawton Chiles serving them with a white napkin draped over his sleeve. Legislators — Republican and Democrat — and lobbyists cheered.
“They’re not cheering for me,” Webster recalled thinking. “They’re cheering because the system was defeated.”
Jennings says that while the uncertainty of Webster’s district is “treacherous” for his speakership prospects, she is confident that if embraced by the full caucus, he could change Washington.
“Unfortunately, Dan will will be cast as one type of leader because of the support of the Freedom Caucus, but while he will have a very conservative agenda, it will be an an agenda that takes into account those who have different opinions, those who have better ideas and those without a voice,” she said. “If you’re in the middle in Washington today, you don’t have a voice.”
Webster’s tenure in the House was not without ideological and partisan scuffles.
The Legislature overrode a veto by Chiles over a bill restricting “partial birth” abortions. It created the “Choose Life” license plate and passed a law requiring doctors to notify the parents of minors seeking an abortion. Lawmakers passed bills to require pre-marriage and pre-divorce counseling.
But Webster also didn’t get everything he wanted. The Legislature did not finance education vouchers that could be used at private schools. The Florida Christian Coalition warned there would be “some fallout in November” after a bill to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to require parental approval for teen abortions was killed in the House.
“My job was to get a fair and open hearing to all ideas,” Webster told reporters at the end of his term as speaker. “Their job was to educate the members and get the votes.”
For her part Frankel said she’ll be voting for former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, not Webster, to become the next House speaker in Congress.
“I wouldn’t want to ruin his chances for Speaker,” she said with a laugh. “But I have to say I think he’s a very decent man.”
Mary Ellen Klas reported from Tallahassee. Lesley Clark reported from Washington, D.C. Clark can be reached at email@example.com