WASHINGTON - Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers on Tuesday offered a kinder, gentler vision of Republicans who are determined to empower Americans, not the government, and close the gap "between where you are and where you want to be."
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Tapped to deliver the GOP response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, McMorris Rodgers touched on the daily routines of average Americans that overshadow Washington, from kissing children goodnight to preparing for a doctor's visit, and complained that Obama's policies are making life harder.
The highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress said the GOP believes "in a government that trusts people and doesn't limit where you finish because of where you started. That is what we stand for — for an America that is every bit as compassionate as it is exceptional. Our plan is one that dreams big for everyone and turns its back on no one."
Noteworthy for a member of the Republican leadership, McMorris Rodgers expressed support for changing the nation's immigration system, though she made no mention of what to do about the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally.
The chairwoman of the House Republican Conference focused on dealing with border security and expanding visas to attract high-tech workers.
Her remarks were highly personal, devoted in large part to her background and family. She spoke while seated on a couch in her office, a flag, family photo and fireplace in the background. She spoke of preferred Republican approaches on school choice, lower taxes and fewer regulations.
In contrast to McMorris Rodgers, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, offered a biting critique.
"After five years, President Obama is clearly out of ideas," Boehner said in a statement. "With few bipartisan proposals, Americans heard a president more interested in advancing ideology than in solving the problems regular folks are talking about."
He criticized the president for focusing on divisive issues and cautioned Obama against any unilateral action that could encroach on the Constitution. Notably, Boehner did urge Obama to work with Republicans on immigration changes.
McMorris Rodgers said that under the president's economic policies "more Americans stopped looking for a job than found one," and criticized his health care overhaul for leading to canceled insurance coverage and patients unable to see their regular doctors.
"Republicans believe health care choices should be yours, not the government's," said the five-term congresswoman from eastern Washington. "And that whether you're a boy with Down syndrome or a woman with breast cancer, you can find coverage and a doctor who will treat you."
McMorris Rodgers' son Cole, 6, has Down syndrome, and she co-founded the Congressional Down Syndrome Caucus six years ago to try to raise awareness of the difficulties that children with the syndrome face. The 44-year-old lawmaker delivered her third child just eight weeks ago.
Countering recent Democratic defenses of government, McMorris Rodgers said the mission is "to ensure that we are not bound by where we come from, but empowered by what we can become. That is the gap Republicans are working to close. It's the gap we all face: between where you are and where you want to be."
Republicans have struggled to shed Democratic criticism that they've waged a "war on women," a difficulty reflected in the 2012 presidential vote in which Obama captured 55 percent of the female vote. Republican remarks about "legitimate rape" and Mike Huckabee's recent convoluted comment about birth control and women's libido have undermined the party's effort to appeal to female voters.
Hours before the president's speech, the House voted to bar federal subsidies to Americans signing up to health care plans that cover abortion, and Democrats accused the GOP of undercutting women's reproductive rights.
McMorris Rodgers, who is fourth in the House leadership, has stood out in a GOP conference dominated by older men. Her national television address comes as the GOP is seeking to attract female voters.
The annual response to the president's address is often awarded to up-and-coming politicians, including ones with presidential ambitions. But delivering the speech to a camera after the president's applause-interrupted address can sometimes prove problematic.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's stiff response in 2009 was widely panned, and the lasting image from Sen. Marco Rubio's speech last year was his desperate grab for a water bottle.
McMorris Rodgers was not the lone GOP voice Tuesday night. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah was giving the tea party response to the president, and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky was delivering his views.
Seizing on Democrats' complaints about income equality, Lee focused on inequality driven by the government and said he shared the frustration of Americans with "an ever-growing government that somehow thinks
it is OK to lie to, spy on and even target its own citizens."
Paul, in his speech, said "government spending doesn't work. It doesn't create jobs." He said the key to economic growth was lower taxes.