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Daniel Webster Presses Nuanced Case for Speaker

Webster, center, is a long-shot candidate for speaker, but that hasn't deterred him. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Daniel Webster made clear over the past two weeks he wasn’t waiting on Paul D. Ryan’s big decision . And on Thursday, the relatively obscure Florida congressman reiterated he is still running for speaker, no matter what.  

He'll continue his quest, he said in a terse statement, “to transform a broken Congress based on the power of a few into a principle-based, member-driven Congress."  

The rationale for his long-shot candidacy is more complex than how he’s being marketed: As the preferred candidate of the House Freedom Caucus, Webster has the favor of 40 or so of the most conservative Republicans , a bloc of support no leader of today’s House can hope to govern without.  

In fact, the 66-year-old lawmaker from Orlando's career in public life has made him something of a Rorschach test for his Republican colleagues. He can be labeled either a career insider, having won the first of multiple elections to the Florida Legislature 35 years ago, or a tea party outsider, having won his House seat in the 2010 GOP wave.  

He can be fairly described as a deal-maker, a reputation earned from several leadership turns in Tallahassee that he’s also sought at the Capitol. Or he can be marked as an avatar of economic and social conservatism, another fair description given the renown of some of his positions in Florida and Washington.  

But no matter the rationales colleagues have for supporting him, there’s little reason to predict Webster’s campaign will succeed any more than his first, just 10 months ago. When he was put forward as the late-starting protest alternative to Speaker John A. Boehner, he drew just 11 Republican votes beside his own.  

If this quest to move to the top doesn’t pan out, Webster may soon have to confront a possible push out of office altogether. The likeliest new congressional map for Florida, the result of a state Supreme Court ruling against the current lines as overly gerrymandered, would remake Webster’s district for 2016 with a lopsidedly Democratic cast.  

Webster announced his candidacy as soon as Boehner announced his departure and kept it alive after Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California dropped out on Oct. 8 and the focus turned to Wisconsin’s Ryan.  

Webster is running on a platform less about ideology than process. His promises to make the House more egalitarian, with less top-down management is what won him the support of the confrontational conservatives, who see themselves as unfairly overlooked by current leaders.  

Most pointedly, Webster says he’d remake the schedule so the last vote every day happens before sundown — a symbolic move in favor of “legislating in the sunshine,” he says, that would herald a departure from legislating the final moments before each crisis.  

That was his hallmark during his two-year turn as speaker of the Florida House, in 1997-98. The first Republican to wield that gavel in 122 years, he championed regular order and the habits that make it viable: detailed committee work, respectful dealings with the opposition, the patience to grind through open debates and a reliance on legislative conference committees. He also relied on those tenets during his decade in the state Senate, the final two years as majority leader.  

In many respects, Webster does not sound like the sort of person the confrontationists would rally behind — he’s not even a member of the House Freedom Caucus.  

He comes off as soft-spoken, even introverted, not the sort of rhetorical bomb thrower that characterizes the movement.  

He has endorsed an establishment favorite, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, not one of the outsider GOP presidential hopefuls.  

So far this year, he’s supported the conservative advocacy group Heritage Action’s position 74 percent of the time, less often than eight other Republicans in his state’s delegation. His congressional career approval rating score from the tea party group FreedomWorks is a modest 63 percent.  

Beyond that, he’s known for hosting bipartisan dinners with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman who is also a colleague from the Statehouse.  

And he’s part of a breakfast group of about 16 members that tries to come up with innovative and bipartisan policy ideas. One such measure would establish a pre-tax savings account for first-time homebuyers getting ready for their down payment.  

His main legislative interest — especially since his run against Boehner cost him a seat on the Rules Committee — has been public works. While it’s a natural priority given his district’s place at a crossroads of both shipping and global tourism, it’s an awkward fit for someone hoping to continue the GOP’s drive for smaller government. He would, for instance, create a revolving transportation trust fund and a federal infrastructure bank to finance new construction.  

Complementing all that, though, is solid evidence of Webster’s conservatism. Only seven House Republicans have voted against the wishes of President Barack Obama less often than his 6 percent this year. And he’s in the top 10 percent of the GOP conference on party unity, siding with his colleagues on 96 percent of roll calls that have broken mainly along party lines.  

And his Baptist faith has overtly informed his public service from the start. After a time running the family heating and air conditioning business, his first foray into politics was to contest a zoning ruling when he tried to convert a house into a Sunday school. He and his wife, Sandy, home-schooled their six children.  

He opposes abortion in all circumstances and strongly supports gun rights. As a state legislator, he was noted for a few faith-inspired measures, such as a resolution to allow “covenant marriage” and a bill to keep alive Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged woman sustained by a feeding tube.  

All this makes for a sort of nuanced Republican conservatism that’s become under-appreciated in the black or white world of today’s GOP — and is unlikely to produce the next speaker of the House.

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