By Seung Min Kim
Every time they turn around, Republicans are under attack from Democrats who claim the GOP is anti-women.
Among the litany of charges: Republicans are soft on domestic violence, they don't want women to be paid as much as men and they aren't willing to allow women to make their own decisions on contraception.
Enter the Women's Policy Committee, a just-formed coalition of the 24 House GOP women to bolster the party's female message, even as its members say the anti-women criticisms are groundless.
"I believe, right now, the so-called war on the women is a myth [and] purely political posturing," Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.), who chairs the new group, said in a recent interview with POLITICO. "I think we do have our work cut out for us. The greatest role model we can be for other politicians is to be out there and be seen."
Another powerful motivation for banding together: to make the predominantly male GOP view policies through a woman's eyes consistently, not just when it's under attack.
"The men cannot think that [when] there's a women's word in the title [of a bill] that that's when we should be engaged," Bono Mack said. "That's a notion we reject. There are women out there who work very hard on issues. We have to remind the gentlemen that we serve with [that] we lead on all the issues."
The committee officially launched May 21 after several months of brainstorming and groundwork. Its strategy is still a work in progress: The group released a video when it launched featuring its 24 members but has yet to unveil tangible initiatives. The group says it'll tackle a broad array of topics from health care to jobs to national security -- saying those are the issues women truly care about.
The group's leaders envision a broader, more aggressive messaging effort that includes pushing more Republican women to speak more often in the media on behalf of the party. Bono Mack also said she hopes the Women's Policy Committee becomes a forum for female lawmakers to help and mentor one another. And she wants to promote newer women in the caucus, such as the nine House Republican women in the freshman class.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said she wants to make sure House Republican women are presenting female perspectives on various policy issues to leadership and committee chairs. The House GOP leadership has two women -- Washington
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the conference's vice chairwoman, and South Dakota Rep. Kristi Noem, one of two freshman representatives to the team.
Meanwhile, one of the 21 House committees is chaired by a woman: the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
"What we would like to do is to make certain that men are taking into consideration what the mom in the minivan is thinking," said Blackburn, one of the group's two vice-chairwomen.
"Women need to be not just tokens but legitimately at the table discussing the issues [with] the members of the House," added Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, a New York freshman who is another vice chairwoman of the group.
The female legislators also want to stress the House GOP women's credentials to handle everyday pocketbook issues. For instance, both Blackburn and Bono Mack owned businesses -- Blackburn a marketing company, Bono Mack a restaurant -- while Buerkle was a nurse before becoming an assistant New York state attorney general.
If the past few months are any indication, the group will not lack things to do.
Several women's groups angrily denounced Republicans for pushing a version of the Violence Against Women Act that didn't expand protections to gays and lesbians, immigrants and tribal women, while rewriting the bill to water down key existing measures, according to the organizations. In the winter, a battle over contraception sucked up Capitol Hill oxygen and invited more attacks on Republicans.
A male campaign aide to Rep. Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y.) drew some unwanted attention recently when he wrote online to "hurl some acid" at female Senate Democrats. Hayworth said Monday that he had resigned from the campaign. And this week, congressional Democrats will try to corner Republicans with a Senate vote on the so-called Paycheck Fairness Act, which would force businesses to prove gender isn't causing pay gaps between men and women in the workplace, among other requirements. Senate Republicans have warned in response that the bill would cause frivolous lawsuits and unnecessary government regulation of businesses.
The legislation is up for a Senate procedural vote Tuesday and faces GOP opposition, although key Democratic senators backing the bill said Monday that they are still trying to court Republican support. But despite the across-the-aisle efforts, Senate Democrats clearly view this as the next front of the GOP's so-called war on women -- while attempting to put Republicans in tight Senate races in a pickle over the issue of pay equity.
"It appears Republicans will wind up on the wrong side of this issue that we've talked about -- paycheck fairness -- sending the message to little girls across the country that their work is less valuable because they happened to be born female," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Monday. "I just hope Republicans will change. They're not going to. They don't agree with this. They don't want women to make the same amount of money, so they're filibustering this."
When the Women's Policy Committee was formally launched, the women also faced criticism from one of their own when former Rep. Claudine Schneider (R-R.I.) vented to the liberal blog ThinkProgress that she would not have felt "at home" with the newly launched group.
"They are afraid of losing in the primaries," Schneider said of current House Republican women. They "have drunk the Kool-Aid that makes them think it is more important to win than to do what is right by ending discrimination."
Despite the barrage, recent polls also show that at least on the presidential level,
the Democratic Party's traditional advantage with women appears to be narrowing.
A CNN/ORC International Poll released June 1 showed that President Barack Obama held a 3-percentage-point edge against assumed GOP rival Mitt Romney, 49 percent to 46 percent. A late May poll from The Washington Post and ABC News had Obama leading Romney among women by 7 points. In earlier polling, Obama had enjoyed double-digit leads over the former Massachusetts governor.
Romney also chose McMorris Rodgers as his campaign's liaison for the chamber, instantly elevating the four-term lawmaker who has become a top voice for House Republicans on women's issues.
McMorris Rodgers's prominence could help draw more women into Republican politics -- which Bono Mack is also pushing for. There are 52 women in the House Democratic Caucus compared with 24 House Republican women, even though Republicans outnumber Democrats overall.
"All too often, women leave. They have kids or leave or go home," Bono Mack said. "We're trying to make a bigger impact quicker."