But Webster, 66, a soft-spoken former speaker in Florida’s House, recalled in an interview Wednesday that he felt tired and tense — and suddenly in the center of a swirling political storm that had begun hours earlier when Ryan announced to his colleagues, over a catered dinner of Chick-Fil-A sandwiches, that he would be open to serving as speaker as long as they fully back him.
As he turned the key to enter his rental, Webster thought of Ryan’s pitch and the mounting calls to support Ryan made by many House Republicans as they streamed out into the night. He grimaced. He understood their plea for unity at a time of GOP unrest. But he also believed that his candidacy — driven by an intense desire to end what he describes as the House’s “top-down rules”— was not something he should just shelve.
“So, I got home, took off my jacket, and called up my chief adviser,” Webster said, cracking a grin.
“Your son?” I asked. When Webster mounted an unsuccessful bid for speaker earlier this year, it was his son, Brent, who briefly served as his informal strategist.
“No, no,” Webster said, shaking his head. “I called my wife, Sandy,” who was at their family’s home in Orlando. “She said, ‘Stick to your guns. Keep fighting.’ I said, ‘You know what, that’s great advice.’ She gets it. That was all that really needed to be said, and I agreed.”
Webster’s decision to continue to challenge Ryan, in spite of the fast-growing support for him in Republican ranks, is perhaps the last and most immovable barrier between the Wisconsin Republican and the speaker’s gavel. While Ryan has said that having the support of all of the House’s factions is a requisite, Webster, for now, is unwilling to bow out.
Instead, Webster met several times Wednesday with members of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, seeking to keep the influential group’s endorsement, which it gave him earlier this month, as Ryan seeks to wrestle it away. Under its bylaws, the 40-member group needs consensus among at least 80 percent of its members before it issues a formal endorsement.
Ryan has given the Freedom Caucus and other blocs until Friday to make a decision. If they do not throw their support behind him, he has warned that he would withdraw from the speaker’s race. Webster acknowledged that his efforts, especially if his candidacy splits the Freedom Caucus vote, could be the factor that eventually pushes Ryan to drop out. He is unapologetic about the possibility.
“This isn’t personal,” Webster said, flatly. “This is about process, about people, about inclusion. My message isn’t against Ryan, it’s against the way the House operates.”
Webster said he believes he could win the Freedom Caucus’s support, or at least stop 80 percent of them from backing Ryan, because he firmly believes in keeping the “motion to vacate the chair,” a procedural move that some conservatives have wielded as a weapon against House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). Ryan has suggested changing how that motion is used by House members so that it’s not a constant threat hanging over whoever wins the speakership.
“That would be like getting rid of the ability to impeach the president. It’d be an overreach to protect those in power. Trying to curb it is not at all appropriate,” Webster said.
“If you reverse the control of members in this House, you’re freeing them up to discuss issues without always worrying about the leadership. The leadership should be following its members, not the other way around,” he added.
And even if Ryan scores a sweeping victory in the party vote next week for speaker, ahead of the vote on the House floor, Webster said he is considering staying in the race until the end, a prospect that could lead to exactly what Ryan is trying to avoid: Republican acrimony in the House chamber, unfolding in front of a national audience.
“I’m going to wait and see how it goes. Maybe I could get some votes on the floor. If Paul Ryan doesn’t get everyone’s support, maybe he decides to get out,” he said. “One on one, going by Republican offices, talking to them, that’s what I’m going to do for the next week. I’ve already done about 125 of those and I have more scheduled.
“People are responding to what I’m saying,” he continued. “They’re sick of how this place is run, of the dog and pony shows on committees. They want a return to bills from members being considered, rather than approving the leadership’s bills.”
Webster, a Baptist, cited his faith as something that keeps him going in spite of the long odds. “I got up at 3:30 [a.m.] today,” he said. “I got up, studied the Bible and prayed. I read five psalms and one proverb every day. If you do that, you finish the both of those books every month.”
Webster pulled out a scrap of paper from his jacket pocket. In miniature scribble in black pen, he had written out a verse, which he began to read.
“The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord,” Webster said. “Like the rivers of water, he turns it wherever he wishes.”
Webster paused, folded the paper up, and gently returned it to his pocket. He looked back at me.
What about after his prayers?
“Well, it was back to the Metro,” Webster said.
Alone, I asked?
“Alone,” he said.