Throwing a punch with a smile

Standing shoulder to shoulder with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Cathy McMorris Rodgers adds a friendly female face to a predominantly male GOP leadership team.

But don’t be fooled, says Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), “Cathy knows how to throw a punch with a smile. She can be tough and she keeps good order in the conference.”

ADVERTISEMENT
The GOP conference chairwoman, for example, called out the president “to lead and get off the campaign trail” during a battle over sequestration earlier this year.

The 44-year-old Washington state lawmaker knows that House Republicans, who battle the Senate and the White House on a daily basis, carry the burden of effectively communicating the GOP’s message.

“Even though we are the minority in this town, we are the majority and people look to us for direction and for the plan coming from the Republicans. So, what’s the way forward? I felt that responsibility coming out of the election … [Republicans] have to define our vision and make sure that people understand how the policies that we are promoting are going to make their lives better and create more opportunities for their children and themselves and make America strong,” McMorris Rodgers said in an interview with The Hill.

Elected in 2004, the five-term lawmaker spent nearly half her time in office as vice chairwoman of the conference, preparing for the position that she currently holds as the fourth-ranking House Republican.

McMorris Rodgers has been positioning her conference to take the lead in the digital media world since 2009.

Noting that Obama in 2008 was able to collect 13 million email addresses, McMorris Rodgers said “this is something that the Republicans need to learn; [we] need to move into the 21st century … Republicans need to be embracing these new communications tools. We started focusing on getting every member to sign up and use Facebook and Twitter. It was relatively new in 2009.”

Based on her success in getting GOP lawmakers up to speed technologically, she quietly built a foundation of credibility among her colleagues and a reputation for listening. That helped her succeed in the race for the conference chair against Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), a race that Boehner wanted her to win.

Now she is focused on arming her colleagues with the tools needed to be effective communicators, including hiring a “media trainer” to work one-on-one or in groups with lawmakers.

“I want our members to be confident. I want them to be knowledgeable. I want to highlight what this conference has to offer,” McMorris Rodgers explained.

Even though she is the official conference spokeswoman, McMorris Rodgers prefers shining a spotlight on the rank-and-file members. She has an understated role on the GOP.gov website, forgoing a portrait on the home page.

Motivational sayings adorn the hallway walls in her office, including “Always Be Closing” and “Coffee is for Closers.”

Last year, she was discussed as Mitt Romney’s potential running mate. After Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was tapped, the Romney campaign used McMorris Rodgers extensively as a surrogate.

Unlike many other Republican women in Congress, McMorris Rodgers is a staunch conservative. She is against abortion rights and has a 91 lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union.

However, she did support Boehner by voting for the controversial fiscal-cliff deal in January. That measure was opposed by many Republicans, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.).

She says the key to a smooth conference operation “starts with us opening up the lines of communications internally ... so we know where our colleagues are coming from and the line forward becomes clearer.”

Creating an open dialogue with members is one way that McMorris Rodgers fights a tough battle for consensus given the independent-minded makeup of the GOP conference.

Cole said the conference is not inclined to come to a unified position, but it “needs to develop a consensus ... and she seems to have a very adroit hand at doing that.”

House Republicans have held “listening sessions” where members have unlimited time to air their position on issues of the day, most recently immigration reform.

Despite her hectic schedule, McMorris Rodgers sees her 6-year-old son, Cole, get on the bus during the school year. After Cole was born with Down syndrome, the GOP legislator helped launch the Congressional Down Syndrome Caucus in 2008.

She recently announced she is expecting her third child.

McMorris Rodgers conceded that the “first trimester is more of a challenge in that it zaps some of your energy and by the end of the day I just wanted to crawl into bed and get a good night’s sleep. But I’m feeling very good right now.”

She is the first lawmaker to give birth to two kids while serving in Congress.

Slowing down is not an option. She noted she’s been “through it a couple of times before,” during an even busier time when she had her daughter, Grace, in December following the 2010 election.

This year, she’s already raised more than $500,000 for the National Republican Congressional Committee — one of five members to hit that mark — according to a source familiar with the campaign data.