As the U.S. House resisted renewal of an anti-domestic violence law, a top priority for women’s groups, Republican leaders turned to Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers to gather the votes to help Democrats pass it.
She’s the top woman in the House Republican leadership, holding the fourth spot in a conference where just 19 of 232 lawmakers are women. Republicans are trying to narrow a voter gender gap this year after Obama beat Republican challenger Mitt Romney by 11 percentage points among women in 2012.
McMorris Rodgers, 44, is the only woman to give birth to three children while serving in Congress. She advertises this, such as in a photograph posted to Instagram last week, where she holds two-month-old Brynn Rodgers on her lap, cradling her head with her left hand. In her right hand is a draft of the speech she’ll give tonight.
“She is living the experience that every American woman is experiencing right now,” said Representative Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, chairwoman of the Republican Women’s Policy Committee. She said McMorris Rodgers is trying to balance work and home, and “I think every woman in America can relate to that.”
McMorris Rodgers will be the first woman selected to respond to the State of the Union address since 2008, when Kathleen Sebelius, then the Democratic governor of Kansas, followed Republican George W. Bush.
At the start of an election year that will determine control of Congress for the rest of Obama’s presidency, and facing Democrats’ contentions that the party’s policies hurt women, she’ll speak for Republicans to a national audience.
McMorris Rodgers, serving her fifth term, has become familiar with this role, as she’s been the highest-ranking House Republican woman in the past three sessions of Congress. She’s also had experience responding to Obama, as she did on March 2, 2013, in the weekly Republican radio address after automatic federal budget cuts took effect. She blamed them on the president.
Through a spokesman, McMorris Rodgers declined to comment for this article. On Jan. 8, in her first press conference after having Brynn, she spoke about her goals.
“As a mom, I can tell you, like all moms, you think about the potential that this child has and the desire and the focus that you have to make sure that your children have the opportunity to reach their full potential,” she said. “And you want that for every person in this country.”
McMorris Rodgers was born in Oregon and lived in Canada as a child. She tends to start her biography with stories about working in the family’s fruit stand in Kettle Falls, a Columbia River town in eastern Washington state. She worked as a maid at a motel, and at a McDonald’s Corp. (MCD) restaurant, to pay her way through Pensacola Christian College in Florida.
She began her political career as a legislative aide in the Washington statehouse, and was appointed a state representative at 24 when her boss was elected to the state Senate. McMorris Rodgers holds an executive MBA from the University of Washington, earned while serving in the state legislature.
As a mother of children ages 6, 3 and 2 months, she often talks about policy through the eyes of a parent. She publicly worries about the burden a $17 trillion-and-rising national debt means for the economy her children will inherit.
McMorris Rodgers has become active in energy issues, pushing for expanded domestic energy production. She has backed legislation to increase oil and gas exploration offshore and in federal lands. One of the 72 bills Congress enacted in 2013 was a measure she authored to expand hydropower production on existing dams and water pipelines.
Her views are in the mainstream of House Republicans. She is affiliated with both the Republican Study Committee, which describes itself as a “caucus of House conservatives,” and the Republican Main Street Partnership, which says it seeks “pragmatic” solutions to issues.
“She’s a legislator at heart,” David Condon, mayor of Spokane, Washington, and a former district director for McMorris Rodgers, said in a phone interview. “She’s obviously going to stay stalwart in her principles, but she’s also going to try to find ways to reach across the aisle to do what’s right for the country and for eastern Washington.”
McMorris Rodgers was in a similar role when she led a fight for Republicans on the Violence Against Women Act, which funds programs to prevent domestic violence. Democrats accused the party throughout 2012 of conducting a “war on women” by opposing pay-fairness litigation and abortion rights, while highlighting comments by Republican candidates deemed insensitive to women.
The Democratic-led Senate passed its bill in early 2013, putting pressure on House Republicans to act. McMorris Rodgers tried to pass a Republican alternative. When it failed, she led 86 other Republicans to vote for the Senate bill, which cleared the House 286-138.
The gender gap in politics is receiving renewed notice from Republican leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner, and it has led to more attention for McMorris Rodgers.
“You look around the Congress, there are a lot more females in the Democratic caucus than there are in the Republican caucus,” Boehner told reporters on Dec. 5. “And, you know, some of our members just aren’t as sensitive as they ought to be.” Asked if he thinks they were making progress on that front, Boehner replied, “I do.”
McMorris Rodgers has called the idea of Republicans having anti-women policies a “myth.”
“Republicans are about getting people back to work,” she told CNN in a May 2012 interview about the accusations. “That’s the best thing we could do for women. It’s the best thing we could do for families.”
Michigan Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley, who has three children ages 9, 7 and 3, will be in the House gallery for Obama’s speech tonight as a guest of Republican Representative Justin Amash of Michigan.
Calley’s 7-year-old daughter has autism. He said he looks up to McMorris Rodgers on a personal level as her son Cole, now 6, was diagnosed with Down syndrome shortly after he was born.
McMorris Rodgers has responded as a lawmaker. She co-founded the Congressional Down Syndrome Caucus and co-sponsored legislation to set up tax-exempt expense accounts for spending related to disabilities, including accessible transportation and special education.
“I want to make sure that I’m doing everything I can to make sure that the next generation has as many opportunities, and more,” she said in a video released to promote tonight’s speech.
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