By Russell Berman and Bernie Becker
As House Republicans made the case for their small business tax cut this week, a group of female lawmakers took center stage to sell the plan.
Facing a long-standing gender gap both on and off Capitol Hill, the male-dominated House GOP has made a concerted effort to include its female members - particularly those in the freshman class - in public events and press conferences.
Yet with the role of women now a key topic in the presidential campaign, female lawmakers like Reps. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) were deployed not simply to echo the leadership's talking points but to highlight the benefits of the tax cut for women and the many businesses they own.
The timing is not a coincidence, Ellmers said. With Democrats accusing Republicans of a "war on women," she said it was "very important" for the party to speak directly to the impact its policies would have on women.
"I'm a woman. I'm a conservative Republican. We need to connect with the women of America," she said in an interview.
"When we see this brought up as an issue, we know we need to come to the forefront and outline these issues," Ellmers said. "We're ready to fight for everyone in America, but when we see women under attack, then it's up to us to come forward and start speaking out with an even stronger, louder voice."
While the presidential campaigns have sparred over stay-at-home mothers, Ellmers, McMorris-Rodgers, Rep. Diane Black (Tenn.) and other Republican women have repeatedly pointed out that women own one-third of all small businesses.
"It's really exciting for me to see that women are starting businesses at a record pace, and I'm not sure that a lot of people in America are aware of that," McMorris-Rodgers said. "I think it's important to let them know that women are being entrepreneurs."
Black denied that politics were at play in the GOP push to highlight the proposal's benefits to women.
But Black, who has also owned a small business herself, also said that it was natural for her to reach out to women who either already are in business for themselves or thinking about taking that leap.
"For me, I am a female, and I do want to be sure that I'm saying to females, hey, you can do this," Black told The Hill. "But this bill to me is not just a female or male bill. It's a gender-neutral bill."
While House Democrats elected the first female Speaker in Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and have more than twice as many women in their caucus, the House GOP has been slower to incorporate women into positions of power. The highest-ranking woman in the House GOP is the conference vice chairman, McMorris-Rodgers, and just one committee leader is a woman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.) on Foreign Affairs.
In an ABC News/Washington Post poll released last week, registered female voters favored President Obama over the presumptive GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, 57 to 38 percent, which was the president's largest margin among women to date.
McMorris-Rodgers had a different take on the so-called gender gap.
"In 2010, the Republicans won the women's vote. It was the first time since Reagan that we won the women's vote," she said. "You could actually argue that women, American women, unelected the first woman speaker of the House, because they didn't like the policies. And these distractions right now by the Democrats are -- they're just trying to distract from the real issues."
In a brief interview, Pelosi dismissed the argument that the GOP's 20 percent tax cut for small businesses would be a policy friendly to women.
"Well over 50 percent of the tax cut goes to the wealthiest people in our country and for them to throw a few crumbs to women, and say they're benefitting women when it's only an excuse to give tax cuts to the high end, is typical," the House minority leader said.
"It's a bill that's going no place. Even their friends have said it's a gimmick," Pelosi said.