In the chaos that is the race to replace John Boehner as speaker of the House, more than a dozen names have cropped up to take control of the Republican conference, with a so-far-unwilling Paul Ryan finding his name at the forefront of most members' minds.
But in the turmoil, one name has been conspicuously absent: Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the No. 4 in leadership and the highest-ranking woman in the House.
While other members of leadership and rank-and-file Republicans from all sides of the conference have chosen to climb up the leadership ranks, McMorris Rodgers, who briefly flirted with a bid for majority leader before Kevin McCarthy dropped out of the speaker’s race, has decided to stay put.
But while she’s clinging to her rung on the leadership ladder, McMorris Rodgers isn’t staying still. As the rare constant in the swirling battle to lead the Republican Conference, the representative from Washington finds herself uniquely positioned to take on a deeper problem within her party, as the men around her make grabs for power.
For years, McMorris Rodgers’s job has been to help House Republicans talk to their constituents. But her new mission is to see whether she can help them talk to each other.
In an interview with Fortune’s Nina Easton at the magazine’s “Most Powerful Women” conference last week, McMorris Rodgers said the new Republican leader needs to be “the right person at the right time." For now, she says, that isn’t her.
In the wake of Boehner’s decision to step down as speaker, McMorris Rodgers called her colleagues, making a passionate case for her bid to be the next majority leader. Just days later, she announced that she would not run. Her staff says that the response to her bid from colleagues was overwhelmingly positive. Still, she decided it’s not her time.
That news wasn’t much of a surprise to her colleagues. McMorris Rodgers made the same decision last June when then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his reelection bid. Two of her colleagues, McCarthy and Steve Scalise, decided to move up; McMorris Rodgers said then, as now, that the timing was off.
Last fall, dozens of House Republicans said that while they liked McMorris Rodgers—her approval within the conference is near-universal—they believe she is where she belongs and won’t move up the leadership ranks. And in the weeks since Boehner announced his retirement, and the days after McCarthy dropped his bid for speaker, that sentiment hasn’t much changed.
Several members told National Journal that McMorris Rodgers is an ideal conference chairwoman and that they are grateful to see her maintain that position. Whether that changes in the future remains to be seen.
“Cathy is doing a heck of a job and ... she’s very young. And time is her ally. And she has a young family,” Rep. Pete Sessions, a close friend of McMorris Rodgers, said just days after she passed on the majority leader’s race. “She has a lot of things she’s got to do, and I think she’s really done herself a favor with her own decision.”
Although some members privately approached McMorris Rodgers to run for speaker when McCarthy dropped his own bid and sent many in the conference into a flurry of panic, her decision to stay put hasn’t changed, leaving her out of many of the public conversations about the new leadership team.
But McMorris Rodgers is focused on a more private conversation for now, setting up meetings within the conference to talk about who Republicans are as a party and, more importantly, how they can change House Republican rules to reflect that.
“I really believe that that is the best place for me right now, to play an important role in learning to build that trust internally [within the Republican conference]. You don’t have trust if you don’t have communication,” she told Fortune.
McMorris Rodgers is organizing conference-wide meetings to rebuild that trust. That began with a meeting on Oct. 7 that attracted nearly half of the House Republican membership to begin talking about how to change rules to reflect an increasingly diverse and young conference angry with their lack of influence in the majority. Members will hold a second meeting on Wednesday to continue that discussion, with members asked to submit written proposals to improve the conference the night before.
So far, McMorris Rodgers and Policy Committee chairman Luke Messer told members in a Dear Colleague letter circulated last week that they’ve “heard clear and consistent messages about the need to follow ‘regular order,’ open up the process, and empower individual Members.”
McMorris Rodgers hopes to establish a working group in the next few weeks that will build off of these conference-wide discussions to change the rules and to satiate the growing discontent in the conference. The hope is to build a small group made up of representatives from all sides of the conference: tea-party-elected conservatives and establishment members; freshmen and long-time members; committee chairmen and rank-and-file Republicans; and members from all regions of the country.
“There are, of course, a lot of details to be worked out. But, without question, there is much more that unites us as a Conference than divides us,” McMorris Rodgers and Messer wrote.
But McMorris Rodgers isn’t just leading this effort to calm the few dozen conservative members who finally succeeded in ousting her boss and longtime mentor. These meetings are the culmination of months of planning, work that began long before Boehner announced his intention to step down.
Back in June and July, leadership asked McMorris Rodgers to conduct meetings with members to discuss the party’s vision. She met with roughly 150 Republicans over those two months. Her intention, at the time, was to draft a sort of mission statement for the House Republican Conference, something that members could point to both in their internal discussions and their interactions with constituents back home.
But what she heard over and over again in those discussions was frustration with the process, with how the majority was conducting business. And not just from the party’s most conservative members, but even from committee chairs and longtime House Republican members. The plan was to begin these process and rule discussions with the conference sometime in September anyway. And then Boehner held his press conference.
In some ways, McMorris Rodgers couldn’t have asked for a better moment. She and Boehner are extremely close, but the chaos and desire for change that his pending absence have stirred up are exactly what she needs.
And even though many on the Far Right see her as too centrist (and too close to Boehner) to be the voice that sorts it out, McMorris Rodgers’s reputation for providing tools and then taking a backseat and letting other members speak for themselves is earning her a lot of trust from the conference as these talks go forward.
As Rep. Trent Franks, a prominent conservative, put it earlier this month: “I think one of Cathy’s great qualities is not only her lucid and articulate manner, but her genuine and sincere and gracious spirit, and I think that’s a tremendous asset for any conference.”
Already, McMorris Rodgers said that she sees the conference “digging deeper than we usually do” in talking about where they’re going and how—together—they’ll get there.
“Change is hard,” McMorris Rodgers and Messer told members in their letter. “In some ways, it would be easier to stick with the status quo. But changing our rules and power structure a little will change our culture a lot.”
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