Female lawmakers flee House for higher office, retirement

Female lawmakers flee House for higher office, retirement
© Greg Nash

Some senior GOP women are fleeing the House, opting for retirement or deciding that they have better prospects running for higher office in 2018 than a spot in GOP leadership.

Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), a former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, is expected to jump into the race against Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillDemocrats turn on Al Franken Trump rips Dems a day ahead of key White House meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE. GOP Rep. Kristi Noem is the front-runner in the race for South Dakota governor. And Republican Rep. Diane BlackDiane Lynn BlackRyan picks his negotiating team for tax cut bill Overnight Finance: House approves motion to go to tax conference — with drama | GOP leaders to consider Dec. 30 spending bill | Justices skeptical of ban on sports betting | Mulvaney won't fire official who sued him Lawmakers take to Twitter to spread the Thanksgiving cheer MORE, the new Budget Committee chairwoman, is eyeing the Tennessee governor’s mansion, GOP sources said.

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Meanwhile, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a former Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman and the first Latina elected to Congress, and Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.), who formerly served in leadership as GOP conference vice chairwoman, both are retiring at the end of this Congress. 

In interviews with The Hill, some female GOP lawmakers and their aides suggested that subtle sexism in the male-dominated House Republican Conference has blocked talented, experienced women from climbing the leadership ladder. Women comprise just 21 of the 238 Republicans in the House, or less than 10 percent.

Of the 193 House Democrats with full voting privileges, there are 62 women — 32 percent of the caucus.

“You think it would be helpful to be a female, but it’s sort of a detraction. I can’t believe I would say that, but it shows,” Ros-Lehtinen told The Hill. “Some of these guys, they just see themselves in those [top leadership] positions and they want it for themselves. And they think if it goes to a woman they will never be able to grab it again.

“There are better staircases to use which will get you further than being in the House. That’s the reason they are running for other offices.”

Democrats can point to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP lawmakers cite new allegations of political bias in FBI Top intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father MORE, who was the first woman nominated for president by a major party, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the first woman elected Speaker.

No woman has ever climbed higher than House Republican Conference chair, the No. 4 post in leadership. That means there has never been a female GOP Speaker, majority leader or majority whip.

Current Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersOvernight Finance: Trump calls for ObamaCare mandate repeal, cuts to top tax rate | Trump to visit Capitol Hill in tax reform push | CBO can't do full score before vote | Bipartisan Senate bill would ease Dodd-Frank rules Overnight Regulation: Bipartisan Senate bill would curb Dodd-Frank rules | Opioid testing rule for transport workers finalized | Google faces state antitrust probe | Dems want investigation into FCC chief Trump to visit Capitol Hill amid tax-reform push MORE (R-Wash.) is the only woman on Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees House Republican: 'I worry about both sides' of the aisle on DACA Overnight Health Care: 3.6M signed up for ObamaCare in first month | Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' next year | Dems push for more money to fight opioids MORE’s (R-Wis.) current leadership team, but she’s been unable to advance any further.

Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerJohn Feehery: A political forest fire Trump's pick for Federal Reserve chief is right choice at right time The two-party system is dying — let’s put it out of its misery MORE’s (R-Ohio) forced resignation in 2015 set off a leadership scramble. McMorris Rodgers, Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and then-Rep, Tom Price (R-Ga.) vied for majority leader, but McMorris Rodgers quickly dropped out of the race once it became clear she didn’t have enough support. That race was called off after Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) abruptly abandoned his bid for Speaker and decided to remain in the No. 2 post.

But the episode proved once again that the GOP conference was not going to promote a woman to any of the “Big Three” leadership jobs. Earlier this year, several media outlets reported that President Trump had picked McMorris Rodgers to be his Interior secretary, but he changed his mind and instead gave the job to Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.).

“You won’t see a woman in a leadership spot besides conference chair for many years. The House GOP isn’t built for it,” fumed a top aide to a female GOP lawmaker. “There are too many well-meaning Southern men who wouldn’t vote for a strong assertive women when the other choice is another Southern man.”

“I don’t think there is a concerted effort to keep women out of leadership,” the staffer said. “But given a choice, this conference will always go the other way.”

In an interview Tuesday, McMorris Rodgers downplayed the idea of a House GOP glass ceiling, calling the lower chamber “a farm team where people always come to get experience to run for higher office.” But she acknowledged the challenges women face in Congress are similar to those in other workplaces.

“I think what’s happening in Congress is not that much different than the national conversation that we’re having as a society about women who are filling these roles that have traditionally been held by men,” McMorris Rodgers told The Hill.

House Republicans have been criticized in the past for not being more cognizant on gender matters. For example, Democrats in 2012 cried foul when a GOP-led panel heard from an all-male panel about an Obama-era policy on contraception.

In March, a photograph from a healthcare meeting at the White House attended by Trump, Vice President Pence and the all-male House Freedom Caucus did not include a single woman. A photo-op of Trump and House Republicans celebrating their healthcare victory in the Rose Garden also was similarly panned. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat McConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Brent Budowsky: A plea to Alabama voters MORE (R-Ky.) attracted criticism by assembling a 13-member, all-male panel to work on a Senate version of the repeal-and-replace legislation. McConnell has since added GOP women to the working group. The top GOP leaders in the Senate are also all men.

“Those photos with President Trump and the White House, it’s a bunch of guys and then the healthcare [Senate] group. ... Photo after photo, they just don’t get it,” Ros-Lehtinen said. 

Ros-Lehtinen, who is one of only two Republican women on the Foreign Affairs Committee and served two years as that panel’s chairwoman, has been a vocal critic of Trump and said he’s “not my cup of tea.” But it’s not “disillusionment or discomfort with the current political climate” that’s driving her into retirement, she said.

The dean of the Florida delegation also said quitting Congress has nothing to do with fears she could be defeated in 2018, though Clinton beat Trump by about 20 points in her Miami-area district.  

Ros-Lehtinen, 64, said she’s simply ready for something different after nearly three decades in the House. 

Other House GOP women have chosen a similar path. Wyoming Rep. Cynthia LummisCynthia LummisFemale lawmakers flee House for higher office, retirement Despite a battle won, 'War on Coal' far from over Dems on offense in gubernatorial races MORE’s retirement in 2016 left the 30-member Freedom Caucus without a single female member. And the recent retirement of House Administration Chairwoman Candice Miller (R-Mich.), the sole woman among the 22 GOP committee chairmen, sent Ryan and his team scrambling to find more chairwomen.

Rep. Virginia FoxxVirginia Ann FoxxGOP higher-ed bill would eliminate Obama rule on career-prep programs GOP bill would eliminate student loan forgiveness for public service Overnight Finance: Day three of tax bill markup | Ryan says election results raise pressure for tax reform | Tax whip list - Where Republicans stand | Justice, AT&T spar over CNN sale | 25 Dems vow to block spending without Dream Act MORE (R-N.C.), who served on Ryan’s leadership team as GOP conference secretary, was elected chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Ryan also named Rep. Susan BrooksSusan Wiant BrooksEthics panel asks for details of past harassment cases against serving lawmakers Pelosi amps up pressure on Conyers to resign Pelosi asks Ethics panel if they need additional resources for Conyers probe MORE (R-Ind.) as chair of the House Ethics Committee, an appointed post.

Republicans got a third committee chairwoman in February when the Ryan-aligned Steering Committee picked Black to succeed Price as head of the Budget panel after Trump tapped him to be his Health and Human Services secretary. 

But she may not stay for long. Her spokeswoman, Hillary Lassiter, said Black is completely focused on her work on the Budget panel. But other sources close to the four-term lawmaker and former nurse said she is likely to announce a Tennessee gubernatorial bid later this year.

“I think it is very likely that she runs. I would be surprised if she didn’t,” said a GOP source close to Black. 

House GOP women are leading in other ways as well, McMorris Rodgers said. Reps. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnFormer Dem Tenn. gov to launch Senate bid: report Google, Facebook and Drudge: What the new titans of media mean for America Learning from the states: Feds should adopt anti-pyramid scheme law MORE (Tenn.), Vicky Hartzler (Mo.) and Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) all hold influential subcommittee gavels, and Stefanik is the first woman to head up 2018 recruitment efforts for the House GOP’s campaign arm. During the last Congress, Blackburn led a committee charged with investigating Planned Parenthood.

“We still have a lot of work to do as a party. Unfortunately we lose women at the same rate as we’re gaining women,” McMorris Rodgers said. “We need to continue to work to recruit more women to run, help them run a successful campaign, and help them win their races so they can serve in the House.”