Third-term representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers doesn't fit the mold of the female member of Congress. Unlike at least three-quarters of them, she's a Republican. And unlike about seven-eighths of them, she's staunchly pro-life.
After serving 10 years in the Washington state legislature, Cathy McMorris was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2004 from the Fifth District, which includes Spokane. At the end of her first term, she married Brian Rodgers, a retired Navy pilot, who now plays "Mr. Mom" for the couple's 23-month-old son, Cole.
Cole has Down syndrome, and McMorris Rodgers's experience with him inspired her to launch the congressional Down Syndrome Caucus last spring. In particular, she was worried about institutional barriers that stand in the way of people with Down syndrome.
When Cole was born, the Rodgerses were advised not to put any assets in his name in order to increase his odds of qualifying for Medicaid. "I think there's something wrong with the system that is driving a person into poverty rather than really focusing on, 'Okay, how do we make this person self-sufficient and able to reach his full potential?' " McMorris Rodgers told me.
The Down Syndrome Caucus is bipartisan, and its co-chairs include D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and Rhode Island congressman Patrick Kennedy, two liberal Democrats. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the caucus has refrained from tackling directly the issue of the 80-to- 90 percent abortion rates for fetuses that are diagnosed prenatally with Down syndrome. McMorris Rodgers noted, however, that last year both houses of Congress passed by unanimous votes, and President Bush signed, a bill requiring health care providers to give mothers up-to-date information about care and support networks when there is a prenatal or postnatal diagnosis of Down syndrome.
The high abortion rate associated with it has put Down syndrome in the forefront of the debate over prenatal testing. The congresswoman pointed out the conflicted feelings of many in the disability advocacy community. "They don't want to be seen as pro-life, and yet they think it is wrong that just because a baby has a diagnosis that so many are aborted."
"I see my son as such a special gift," she went on, "and he is such a joy. People are drawn to Cole; he just has such a special way about him, and it makes me more passionate to want to fight for Cole as well as others, whether it's Down syndrome or any other disability, and fight for the value and the tremendous impact that they can have in a positive way on our lives and this world."
Sarah Palin's comment in her speech accepting the Republican nomination for vice president last summer--that "children with special needs inspire a special love"--struck a chord with McMorris Rodgers. "Any family that's been touched with someone who has disabilities can relate to that," she said.
Douglas Johnson, the legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, underscored McMorris Rodgers's 100 percent pro-life voting record, noting, "She has been one who has not just voted pro-life but has sponsored pro-life bills, quite a number of them."
McMorris Rodgers's Republican colleagues already recognize her as a leader, especially on energy issues. (She supports an "all-of-the above" approach and has won bipartisan support for her work on hydropower.) This year, she was elected vice chair of the Republican conference, making her the 4th-highest-ranking member in the minority and the highest-ranking woman in the Republican caucus.
Indiana congressman and House Republican Conference chair Mike Pence said McMorris Rodgers has demonstrated "almost a Thatcheresque quality," combining her pleasant, energetic demeanor with firmly held conservative principles. Pence credits her with bringing members of the Republican conference into the new media age. These qualities, as well as her willingness to work across the aisle, make her an appealing figure in a party seeking to attract young voters and women.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which supports pro-life women running for office, told me she thinks women like Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Sarah Palin are transforming the idea of what it means to be a woman in politics, giving young women role models different from the traditional liberal female politician. Dannenfelser's organization has supported McMorris Rodgers since her first run for Congress.
Dannenfelser thinks McMorris Rodgers possesses a special authority when she talks about issues relating to the innate worth of human beings. "The facts are the facts. Somehow, the presenter of the facts in certain debates sometimes matters more than the facts themselves," she said. "For her to say human beings aren't all about utility, she speaks with authority, because she's living it."
As for McMorris Rodgers, her strategy going forward is to focus on reminding people of the value that every person has. "I've long thought that we need to reach people's hearts on this issue," she said, pointing to the effect ultrasound technology has had on parents, who now can see their children before they're born. "I think that's having an impact on society and that people are asking themselves the question, when does life begin?"
Kevin Vance is an editorial assistant and Collegiate Network fellow at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.