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McMorris Rodgers Adds Female Voice to GOP Leadership

McMorris Rodgers Adds Female Voice to GOP Leadership

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - March 1, 2013

Amid a Republican rebranding effort triggered by the party’s difficulty attracting minorities and women in the 2012 election, the GOP-controlled House passed the Violence Against Women Act this week.

House Speaker John Boehner allowed the bill to pass even though a majority of its support came from Democrats. The reason: Republican leaders figured that with big budget problems and an important midterm election on the horizon, GOP-thwarted legislation with the words “violence” and “women” in it was the last thing they needed dangling over their heads.

After the election, House Republicans first sought to bolster their image by choosing a woman from Washington state to a top leadership post over a more conservative white male from Georgia. Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, 43, rewarded that vote of confidence by taking the lead on a version of the anti-domestic violence bill, which initially failed in the House, and she was one of only 87 Republicans to vote for the Senate-passed version.

The congresswoman is the now fourth highest-ranking Republican in the House and is already proving to be an asset in a chamber led by men. But time will tell whether she makes her presence on the leadership team about more than just optics. Though she sponsored and supported VAWA legislation, she didn’t take to the airwaves or op-ed pages to plug it, and she didn’t release any statements before or after the vote. Instead, her public focus has been on fiscal policy, emphasizing her experience as a mother of two who’s concerned about her young children’s future.

McMorris Rodgers is responsible for the messaging and communication of Republican priorities in the House. She recognizes the skills and the influence she can bring to the team and the party as a woman, but she and other female colleagues who have climbed the ranks say they got there by being one of the guys.

“None of us are tokens,” North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx, another leadership member, said sternly. Asked how women make it to powerful positions in the House, she replied, “The same thing it takes for men to get to leadership: hard work and running.”

McMorris Rodgers is certainly no stranger to hard work. She grew up on a farm, working in her family’s orchard in Kettle Falls, Wash. She was the first member of her family to graduate from college, and took orders at a McDonald’s drive-through to help pay bills. She was elected to the Washington state House in 1994 at the age of 25, and to the U.S. House of Representatives 10 years later. At the end of her second term there, she was elected vice chair of the GOP conference, re-elected in 2010, and then promoted to lead the conference in 2012. She also served on the Republican Study Committee, a group of the House’s more conservative members.

The kind of position the congresswoman holds probably isn’t well known outside of the Washington Beltway. But her selection was significant after Republicans lost women by 11 points in the 2012 election. McMorris Rogers was a top surrogate for Mitt Romney and served as a key congressional liaison, while often mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate.

She took the stage several times during the Republican National Convention in Tampa, an event geared towards improving the nominee’s standing among women after polls found him lagging. As controversy over the health care law’s contraception mandate brewed and prominent conservative candidates made disturbing comments about rape victims, Democrats charged the GOP with waging a “war on women.” As a rising star in the party, McMorris Rodgers took on the role of the lead rebutter.

“Republicans have allowed the Democrats to define us too much of the time,” the congresswoman said in a wide-ranging interview with RCP. She noted that Republicans won the women’s vote in 2010 and have had more women running for office on the GOP ticket than in recent years. But “Democrats, in a way, they set up a trap and we stepped in it,” the five-term congresswoman said.

“I’m disappointed because people know the Republican Party, largely, is pro-life,” she added. “And the debate in Congress has been whether or not there should be federal funding for abortions . . . and yet we got involved in some statements that were distracting and very harmful in the end, especially as it related to the women’s vote.”

Romney eschewed suggestions from some quarters that he address the GOP’s perception problem by choosing a woman or minority as his running mate. And the man he did select, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, backed McMorris Rodgers’ challenger, Georgia conservative Rep. Tom Price, for conference chair -- despite the congresswoman’s efforts in support of the presidential ticket. Boehner did not chose sides, but offered Price a different leadership spot if he dropped his bid for conference chair. South Carolina Republican Tim Scott -- another rising conservative star who has since become one of two African-Americans in the Senate -- rallied members in support of McMorris Rodgers in a vote that became a proxy for which direction the party would chose after the bruising election.

“Her being a woman certainly is an asset, but really what she brings to the table, her greatest asset, is her experience: She’s articulate, committed to the cause, and being a conservative before conservatism was cool in Washington state,” Scott told RCP. Scott also described his colleague’s “martial arts-like” ability to balance family and work: “Part of it comes from her faith, and I think part of it comes from, she has a Down syndrome child, which has helped to form her character.

“To me, what we need to communicate is authenticity, as much as anything else,” Scott said.

McMorris Rodgers is the only current member of Congress to give birth twice while in office, and she co-founded the Down Syndrome Caucus to support those like her first-born, Cole, who is now 5. She also co-sponsored legislation that would alter the tax code to provide tax-free accounts for parents to care for children with disabilities.

Motherhood and her experience with a disabled child inform her Republican principles, particularly when it comes to employment.

“Being a mom has given me a whole new purpose for being in Congress, a whole new passion. As I look at the direction the country is going, I’m thinking about my children,” she said. “Cole has just opened my eyes. . . . There are millions of people in this country with disabilities, and we need to unleash that talent. Their unemployment numbers are staggering, and a large majority of them would like to work. A job is so much more than just a paycheck. It’s where you get a lot of your self-worth, your purpose in life.”

As the nation’s fiscal cliff negotiations heated up last December, McMorris Rodgers gathered a handful of Republican colleagues -- mostly women -- and dozens of parents and small children for a press conference near the Capitol steps to explain the burden of the national debt on the next generation. It’s a line of argumentation with the potential to dull Democratic Party critiques that Republicans tax policies exist to protecting the portfolios of the rich.

“At the federal level, a lot of us like to talk about percentages, and she is able to literally bring it back to the household,” Spokane Mayor David Condon, a former deputy chief of staff for McMorris Rodgers, told RCP. Conference chair “is a partisan position and people have often said to me partisan is the problem, but I think [of McMorris Rodgers], what a breath of fresh air.”

Democrats and detractors say that Republicans will need a lot more than a woman in House leadership to improve its standing with female voters. McMorris Rodgers, however, says the GOP doesn’t need to change its policy prescriptions; rather, it needs to tweak its communications -- a difficult task given the president’s bully pulpit and an exhausted public. “I think the messenger is important,” she said.

McMorris Rodgers tends to vote with her leadership team and follow Boehner’s cue, but she did break with Majority Leader Eric Cantor this week on domestic violence legislation. McMorris Rodgers and Cantor worked together in pushing the House version of the VAWA bill, which omitted from the Senate version protections for gay, lesbian, or transgender victims as well as assigning jurisdiction to tribal authorities to prosecute cases in tribal court. (The tribal court provision irked many Republicans concerned with its constitutionality.)

The measure failed, 257-166. The House then voted to pass the Senate version, 286-138. Cantor voted against it. McMorris Rodgers was one of only a handful of Republican women who backed it. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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