With an Eye on the Party's Image, House GOP Puts Women Front and Center

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

There are 19 women in the House Republican Conference, and on Thursday, 11 of them came to the chamber floor in support of a bill they said was a woman's issue at its core.  

The spotlight on GOP women came as part of a debate over changing the Affordable Care Act's definition of a full-time job from 30 hours a week to 40.  

The bill, which passed 248-179, is destined to be ignored by the Senate. But the vote offered Republicans a chance to push back against the Democrats' election-year narrative that the GOP is just a club for powerful old white men.  

That Democratic line of attack has been fueled by embarrassing reports that the GOP party establishment has coached  male candidates on how to run against women without being sexist or offensive.  

"I think Democrats want you to believe there's no such thing as conservative women, and that everything we do is harmful to women," House Republican Conference Vice Chairwoman Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan., told CQ Roll Call. "And here we are, as Republican women, discussing legislation that would disproportionately hurt women in our country, and we had a solution to the problem that directly was a result of Democratic policies."  

Jenkins was at the forefront of the choice to put women front and center during Thursday's debate.  

The 2010 health care law defines the average workweek as 30 hours, which Republicans argue has contributed to lost jobs and slashed wages — particularly for working and single mothers.  

Though the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Todd Young, R-Ind., might have been the obvious choice to manage floor debate, Jenkins was chosen for the task. She said the predominantly-male Republican leadership recognized the importance of having women colleagues as the public face of the legislative effort.  

“It was just a really good opportunity for us to remind the American people that conservative women stand with them,” she said.  

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the highest-ranking House Republican woman who serves as the head of the conference in the slot above Jenkins, was also instrumental in the effort, said a GOP leadership aide.  

According to the aide, McMorris Rodgers made the initial request that floor time specifically focus on the extent to which women have been affected by the 30-hour workweek rule. She and leading members of the Republican Women’s Policy Committee  recruited the roster of 11 female speakers.  

In a recent interview  with CQ Roll Call, McMorris Rodgers conceded that it is still sometimes difficult to be a woman in a male-dominated Republican Party and also acknowledged  that the party needs many more women office-holders on Capitol Hill. She said a concerted recruitment effort, already underway , is critical to the party’s future.  

Jenkins said she felt a similar drive to get more women elected to Congress.  

“I always joke that men wake up, look in the mirror, say, ‘Darn, I’m awesome, I’m gonna run for Congress,’ ” Jenkins said. “Women don’t think that way. We need for people to call us to tell us we ought to run for office.”  

Was that how Jenkins came to seek a seat in Congress?  

“It is indeed," she replied. "And I’m ashamed to say it. I had to be asked. ... It shouldn't be that way."  

House Democrats — who have bragging rights to a much more diverse caucus and to having elected the nation's first female House speaker — weren't buying the GOP message on Thursday.  

“They cannot be serious,” said a spokeswoman with House Democratic leadership in a statement to CQ Roll Call. “House Republicans have repeatedly voted — 52 times, in fact — to repeal or undermine the [ACA], to make 'being a woman' a pre-existing condition, to allow insurance companies to charge women higher premiums, and to strip women of free preventative health screenings.  

“I’m not sure who they think they’re fooling,” she said, “but America’s women are too smart to buy it.”  

Correction: An earlier version of this report misidentified Rep. Lynn Jenkins' position with the House Republican Conference.  She is vice chair.