BN KT067 WEBSTE J 20151013173426


If elected, Mr. Webster said he would let committees play a bigger role in deciding which bills get a vote on the House floor, bring up important spending bills well before deadlines hit and let lawmakers engage in more robust debate on legislation and amendments.


Kristina Peterson | Wall Street Journal


WASHINGTON—If Rep. Daniel Webster, a little-known Florida Republican, wins his bid to become the next House speaker, lawmakers might not work past 6 p.m.


Mr. Webster ended frenzied, late-night legislating when he served as Florida House speaker from 1996 to 1998, a two-year reign central to his pitch to succeed departing Speaker John Boehner.


“I would like to do everything in the daylight,” Mr. Webster said in an interview Tuesday, though he noted starting the legislative day at 8:30 a.m. might have been easier in Florida. “I don’t know the Congress could get rolling that quick.”


The 66-year-old lawmaker faces long odds to becoming the next speaker. Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) is the overwhelming favorite for the job, if he agrees to run for it.


But Mr. Webster, who received a dozen votes for speaker in January, has snapped up a voting bloc whose support is crucial in electing a speaker on the House floor. Last week, he was endorsed by the Freedom Caucus, a group of roughly 40 hard-line conservatives, most of whom opposed Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.), who suddenly withdrew from the race Oct. 8.


Mr. Ryan, the Ways and Means Committee chairman, is under pressure to run for speaker as potentially the only Republican able to woo militant conservatives away from Mr. Webster. It won’t be easy. Hard-liners who have repeatedly clashed with top GOP leaders over committee assignments, amendment votes and floor procedures have rallied around the third-term backbencher who has pledged to decentralize power in the House.


“As a person he’s boring, quiet and even somewhat introverted,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R., S.C.), a member of the Freedom Caucus. “The fact that we went with Daniel reinforces our message that this is not about the person—it’s about the process.”


Mr. Webster, who believes he is a “distant relative” of famous 19th century Sen. Daniel Webster, already faces competition for the job from Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah). Rivals are expected to multiply exponentially if Mr. Ryan refuses to enter the race. Republicans who would then consider running include Texas Republican Reps. Bill Flores, Pete Sessions and likely many others, aides said.


If elected, Mr. Webster said he would let committees play a bigger role in deciding which bills get a vote on the House floor, bring up important spending bills well before deadlines hit and let lawmakers engage in more robust debate on legislation and amendments.


“Every member in Congress has a seat, and they deserve a seat at the table,” he said.


Mr. Webster isn’t himself a member of the Freedom Caucus, saying he has opted not to join different caucuses. But his history in the Florida House has resonated with the group and even some more centrist Republicans. Rep. David Jolly (R., Fla.) recently sent House Republicans a letter backing Mr. Webster.


The lawmaker’s appeal rests on the changes he instituted in his time leading the Florida House, which elects a new speaker every two years to lead the chamber’s 120 members for their annual 60-day regular sessions.


As the first Republican Florida House speaker in more than a century, Mr. Webster said he sought to broaden participation and focus on the thorniest legislative issues first. His tenure as speaker ended at 6 p.m., followed by an orange-juice toast with the leader of the Senate and the Democratic governor.


“Dan instituted a kind of process where a wide majority of members felt like they had some input,” said Tom Feeney, a Republican who served later as Florida House speaker and is now chief executive of Associated Industries of Florida. Mr. Webster ended a culture where “at 3 a.m. a bill would roll out with massive changes and very few people knew what was in it,” Mr. Feeney said.


But some who served with Mr. Webster said his process, while more inclusive, still left power concentrated at the top.


“Even under his watch, his five or six closest insiders were really in charge,” said Johnnie Byrd, a Republican who also later served as House speaker.


Democrats have worried about Mr. Webster’s conservative social policies. He introduced a bill in the 1990s that would allow couples to enter into a “covenant marriage,” in which they could only divorce if one partner committed adultery.


Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D., Fla.), who served with Mr. Webster in the Florida House, has hosted bipartisan dinners with him in Washington. “We share a belief that it is important to understand colleagues in both parties and protect the integrity of the institution,” she said in a statement Tuesday, but emphasized she wasn’t endorsing him for speaker. “Unfortunately, a small fraction of the Republican conference has wreaked havoc on the House of Representatives, and their party has to sort this mess out.”


In one recent twist, Mr. Webster will face much tougher re-election prospects next year if the Florida Supreme Court accepts an overhaul of Florida’s electoral map recommended by Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis last week. Already two Democrats are running to unseat Mr. Webster, who could choose to run from a different district under the new map.


“The uncertainty there doesn’t help him,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. “It would be a bit disconcerting to Republicans to elect somebody and then they’re gone.” The Constitution, however, doesn’t require the speaker to be a member of the House.