Conservatives aren’t finished opposing Speaker John Boehner. Neither, apparently, is Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL).
In an interview, the Florida Republican says he is still working to build support for a “member-driven, principle-based” House – and his supporters, including key conservatives such as Rep. Steve King (R-IA), aren’t backing down either.
Several right-wing dissidents who voted against their party’s sitting speaker faced a severe backlash following the event, and GOP moderates have worked since then to build clout. So far that’s mostly involved taking down a key pro-life bill on the eve of a massive anti-abortion march. The timing, clearly, was less than ideal.
But at a broader level, the historic repudiation of Boehner has introduced a new element of chaos into the GOP conference that threatens to explode anew as the Ohio Republican moves at breakneck speed to bring immigration bills to the floor.
“He used every chit he had to start the first day of Congress,” laments a lobbyist about Boehner’s plight.
Webster is unique because he isn’t one of the bomb-throwing back-benchers that have made Boehner’s life miserable, despite drawing allegiance from some of them. Ideologically, he’s in the middle of the pack of the GOP conference, and noted moderates have expressed their admiration for his temperament.
Sitting in the lobby of the Hershey Lodge amid cozy fireplaces, reporters eating five pound chocolate bars, and cheesy jazz music in the background, my instinct is to start slow with Webster. After all, until he launched a last-minute bid to topple the Speaker of the House in the first week of January, he’d seen little of the national spotlight.
Instead, Webster appears only mildly interested in my questions until the subject charged to his failed leadership bid, at which point he lights up.
“No regrets,” starts Webster, 65. Moreover, his challenge to Boehner doesn’t seem to be in the past tense. “I have a great desire to have a member-driven principle-based Congress, period. That’s it. I know how to get there, at least how I’ve done it in the past. It requires, kind of you push down a pyramid of power that exists in every legislative body everywhere,” he says.
As Webster begins to explain the “pyramid of power” — he means the bare-knuckle hierarchy that controls the chamber — Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, interrupts to say hello.
Not knowing anything about their relationship, except that Webster had just been thrown off Sessions’ powerful committee in apparent punishment for his dissident acts, I half-imagined Sessions was attempting to intimidate Webster into holding his tongue with a reporter.
But Sessions explains later they are close friends. In fact, Sessions was actually Webster’s designated mentor when the Floridian arrived in Washington in 2011.
“I’m his big brother,” Sessions tells me with affection. Despite Webster’s exile from his committee, “nothing can diminish the great work and hard work [Webster] did on behalf of our conference day after day after day,” he says.
Admiration from the chairman of the “speaker’s committee” may be surprising, but Webster seems to find allies in unexpected places. For one thing, the mini-movement urging him to run came from the far-right flank of the GOP conference, despite Webster’s own voting record, which is in the middle of the pack among Republicans ideologically.
Webster’s fame – or infamy – came quickly.
About two hours before the Jan. 6 Speaker vote, Webster announced his candidacy. Perhaps he would have enjoyed even wider support if he’d had time to really campaign. For example, on what he described as a last-minute whim, Rep. Scott Rigell (R-VA), a moderate perhaps known best for traveling aboard Air Force One with President Obama to an event in his district, called out Webster’s name on the floor. Walking to the House floor, Rigell saw Webster had announced his candidacy. “That, to me, made all the difference,” Rigell told reporters afterward.
But in the frantic two hours after his announced bid on Jan. 6, Webster didn’t even have time to talk to Boehner.
“I barely told myself! I mean, I had to tell my family. My family was there, I had to tell them. [Boehner] did call me, but I did not realize it. About maybe a half hour before the vote and I did not realize it. I had my grandson with me, he was going to be on the floor. I wasn’t even listening – feeling vibrations or anything. I just missed it and I did not know he was available.
The entire effort was suprisingly helter-skelter for such a seasoned legislator, which rubbed some potential supporters the wrong way.
“The guy never reached out and talked to me. I did not know him very well. In the last week he’s come over and talked to me about some of the process things. Seems like an earnest man. Was the speaker of his state legislative guy. Seems like a nice guy, but it was too little, too late,” said Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), a key conservative.
Following the vote, in which 25 Republicans ultimately did not vote for Boehner, Webster walked up to Boehner, telling him, “it’s over. Done.”
But three weeks later, it doesn’t sound that way from listening to Webster – or his supporters. A political lifer, he seems to be playing a long game. And he has a plan to improve the rules.
Webster, then 30, was elected to the Florida state house in 1980. In 1996, he became the first Republican Speaker of the House in 122 years.
For 16 years, he had watched the annual appropriations bill pass on the last day of session in last-minute frenzy.
“Last week of session you start working towards this exponential train wreck. And it’s designed. People think it’s chaotic because we just can’t do it any other way, but it’s designed to do that,” Webster says, explaining that running up against deadlines is a means of passing bills with provisions that wouldn’t survive scrutiny.
“You work until midnight. Then, after midnight, on the last day of session, is when it all rolled out. Just an example, on the last day of session in the year before I became speaker, we passed an appropriation, we created a new department of health, dismantled department of Congress and re-wrote the welfare laws in about 15 minutes time. Nobody had a chance to read it. So that’s power. Because what they’ve done is stuck things in that never, ever would have passed the light of day,” he says.
Suddenly in charge, Webster vowed to bring regular order to the chamber and instituting a strict rule against legislative action after 6:00 pm. Rather than hold off difficult bills until later, he started the chamber on them early.
On the last day of session, Webster kept to his plan, banging down the gavel as the seconds ticked down to 6:00, surprising Florida’s political establishment and earning accolades even from Democrats.
He and the Senate president “raised our gavels at the exact same time: 5:59 and the minute it hit down, boom, six o’clock, the clock flipped to six. What happened was, the members, Republican and Democrat leaped to their feet with their arms in the air and cheered. And they weren’t cheering for me – they weren’t. They were cheering because it actually happened that we were able to have a member-driven House that got the work done, did it on time, did it in the daylight and they all got to participate,” Webster says.
Webster may have announced his challenge to Boehner only two hours before the election, but he’s been showing up on radar screens for longer than that. It was more than two years ago that Rep. Steve King says he first approached Webster about the idea, and it had been percolating since the turn off the century.
In 2000, as the nation watched Florida count “hanging chads” with the presidency at stake, King, then a state senator, was at home in Iowa, watching the events unfold and working the phones until he passed out from exhaustion every night in the living room. He became acquainted with Webster’s work on the issue as a state senator. In talks with other Floridians once he reached Congress, King eventually became a Webster convert and worked to build support, while keeping Webster up to date.
“As the voices began to emerge of the people that were dissatisfied, then I would inject Dan Webster’s name into those conversations. At the beginning – of course I’m talking more to conservatives to anyone else. They would say, ‘well Dan Webster really doesn’t fit within the conservative mold.’ And I’d say, it isn’t that we need a strong conservative for speaker. We need a speaker who respects the institution,” King says.
But despite an undercurrent of unease with Boehner, no one stepped forward to challenge him in the closed-door conference elections in November.
“I still had hope that it would all work out,” Webster says. After the election, “there was a lot of stuff said by our national leaders and our leaders here after the election, that hey we’ve got to prove that we can lead. It’s going to affect anything we do, even in 2016. We’ve gotta change. It’s going to be a new day. And that was, ok, great.”
Then, the “cromnibus” happened.
Anxious to “clear the decks” for the next Congress, Boehner worked to pass an omnibus appropriations bill just as Obama was moving ahead with a breathtaking executive amnesty for millions of illegal aliens. Funding for the Department of Homeland Security was only extended temporarily, like a continuing resolution bill (hence the “cromnibus” name).
Boehner, who had ripped former Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi for passing huge bills on short time-frames, passed a 1,600 page bill introduced Tuesday night on Thursday as lawmakers were anxious to get home for Christmas.
“I’m thinking, well, it looks like it’s not going to change,” Webster says.
Restless conservatives who had been meeting for more than a year about the issue began to call Webster, urging him to run. And although Webster says he never decided to run until the day of the election, the recollections of others make the discussions sound more advanced.
For example, Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) called radio host Erick Erickson to set up a phone call between him and Webster, the preliminary plan being that Webster would announce his candidacy on the Rush Limbaugh radio show, which Erickson was guest hosting at the end of December. The call between the two never took place, Erickson said; Jones said the plan was scrapped because those plotting the effort felt it might be too early to announce Webster’s candidacy.
Conservative activists including Conservative Review’s Daniel Horowitz, meanwhile, were helping drive thousands of phone calls to congressional Republicans, inundating Capitol Hill offices that were surprised at the ferocity of the outpouring.
“What conservatives saw in a man like Webster was not necessarily a conservative leader, but an institutionalist who respects regular order and the committee process,” says Horowitz. “For all the talk about conservatives being ‘purists,’ this was actually a very pragmatic and tactical plan.”
Meanwhile, Boehner and his allies were fighting back behind the scenes. The day before the speaker election, a group of incoming freshman lawmakers that had been in discussions with activists leading the charge abruptly cut off contact, leaving them unsure what had taken place. King said Boehner’s office in particular sought to bring in members that had voted against him in 2013 back into the fold, a gambit that paid dividends on the floor.
The speaker election is unlike any other vote in Congress, and voting against one’s party nominee is far from easy. In the run-up to this year’s vote, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), said he had reviewed footage from the 2013 vote, in which he had voted against Boehner. “I got a knot in my stomach watching it from two years ago. I mean, it’s very stressful,” he said. Massie was the Republican second most likely to vote opposite the majority of his party in the 113th Congress, only a few percentage points behind first place, his close friend Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), showing he has no particular compunction about breaking with his peers.
On the day of the vote, as lawmakers registered their presence in a quorum call, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-AZ), the first member to announce his attention to vote against Boehner, sat glumly, almost as if he was at a funeral, and there were long faces all around him in a group of arch conservatives sitting together.
The party’s number two, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, meanwhile, held a sunny disposition, chatting and laughing amiably with lawmakers.
Part of the reason was an unexpected dearth of lawmakers present. Under the rules of the House, a speaker must win an absolute majority of the votes cast for a candidate. Thus, every Democratic vote for Pelosi would have made it easier for the conservatives to deny Boehner an outright victory, forcing what likely would have been a chaotic, post-vote showdown in the Capitol basement.
In the end, 20 Democrats were missing, some attending the funeral of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, others delayed by inclement weather, giving Boehner significant breathing room.
According to Erickson, who was in close touch with Republicans leading up to the vote, both the rebels and leadership forces believed the number of dissidents would end up in the 16-18 vote range.
As the roll meandered through the chamber’s 435 members, some votes burned leadership more than others.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) had led the charge in the summer of 2013 to defund Obamacare, an effort that led to a standoff between Obama and the House Republicans and a 16-day government shutdown. Even at the time of the shutdown, Meadows seemed to distance himself from the effort, but out of the view of the cameras he had vividly expressed remorse to Boehner and other top Republicans in a closed-door meeting.
To see him join with the hard right again on the speaker vote irked Boehner, friends said.
“It was a gut-wrenching vote, the toughest I have ever taken,” says Meadows in an interview, attributing it simply to the thousands of calls from constituents that came into his office.
Webster ended up with 12 votes, including Meadows. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) who had also announced a bid and worked hard for support, received two votes in addition to his own. Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) another candidate, received one vote, as well as his own.
In the end, 24 Republicans voted for someone other than Boehner, and one, incoming freshman Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), voted present.
In 13 speaker elections since 1991, the highest number of lawmakers from the majority party that had voted against their party’s nominee was ten in 2013, against Boehner. Prior to that, it was nine in 1997, when former Speaker Newt Gingrich held-on to win with 215 votes, seven greater than the Democratic nominee.
“I think Dan Webster’s stronger now than he was a couple weeks ago,” King says. “He’s demonstrated that core of leadership. When you listen to him talk, the depth of his conviction comes through. He’s soft spoken, he’s not an over-stater, he may be an under-stater.”
That sentiment, echoed by other conservatives that backed Webster who think they have finally found a standard-bearer that can rival Boehner, may be overly optimistic. The speaker election gambit has driven some deep rifts among conservatives, some of whom were unhappy to be on the receiving end of angry constituent calls urging them to join an effort they thought was doomed to fail.
Meanwhile, it’s the GOP’s moderate caucus that seems to be in a “we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore” mode, bringing down a pro-life bill from the floor and complaining bitterly about an aggressive stance on immigration funding taken in the Department of Homeland Security funding bill.
Beyond which faction is up or down in the most recent fights, the most striking part about the speaker vote and its aftermath is that an extra element of chaos and uncertainty has been added to an already volatile conference.
What conservatives have in Webster, for the first time, is a Boehner rival who holds the potential for broader support among their fellow Republicans than any of the rebels could ever hope for himself.
And Webster is still game, even after the gnashing of teeth on Jan. 6.
“I am working to build support for what I just told you. I want to have a principle-based, member-driven Congress,” he told me.
I already have a title. I’m already speaker. I’m already leader. I was a majority leader in the senate, too. And I was chairman. All those things. I don’t have to have a title. There’s a lot of responsibility and a lot of pain and suffering that goes with those things, too. I’ve done that. I’ve been in this for 32 years. But, if nobody else will do it, I would do it. But I’m just saying, all I’m working toward is what I just explained. And if somebody would follow and let me guide them a little bit, I’m happy with that.