Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) has already had several unique achievements: She was the 200th woman elected to the House in 2004. She led the GOP conference in 2013. And she was the first member of Congress to give birth twice—and again a third time—while in office.
She now has her sights on serving as the first woman to lead her party on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. Rodgers is one of several Republicans vying to be the chair or ranking member of the panel, depending on which party controls the House in 2021.
“The issues before this committee are really going to determine our future, whether or not we win the future,” McMorris Rodgers told Bloomberg Environment recently. “They’re the issues that are at the forefront of the political debate.”
Energy and Commerce handles some of the prickliest topics in federal policy, including health care, climate change, data privacy, and the appropriate use of technology. Currently just two House Republican women lead their party on committees: Texas’ Kay Granger on Appropriations and North Carolina’s Virginia Foxx on Education and Labor.
Engage on Climate
The congresswoman typically votes in step with her party and President Donald Trump, but McMorris Rodgers said the GOP needs to engage more on climate change.
“I don’t think the Republicans have done enough to really celebrate or talk about the free-market, pro-job solutions that we have long championed that are part of a climate solution,” she said.
One example she noted is the deployment of small modular nuclear reactors, which could replace large nuclear plants that struggle to compete with inexpensive natural gas. She’s concerned the U.S. will lose its competitive edge on the technology while China exports its own around the world.
“American companies like TerraPower in Bellevue, Wash., have led the world in nuclear technology and innovation, but regulatory restrictions have hurt their ability to deploy new reactors both at home and abroad,” McMorris Rodgers said at a Dec. 5 subcommittee hearing on decarbonizing the economy.
Burgess, Latta in Committee Race
Winning the spot to lead Energy and Commerce’s Republicans will be a tough challenge for McMorris Rodgers.
Her two competitors, Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) and Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio), have more seniority than she does on the committee. Burgess, a former doctor and ranking member of the health subcommittee, would be a top choice if Republicans seek to focus on health care in the 117th Congress.
“I will aggressively campaign for the position,” Burgess said in a brief interview.
Rebecca Card, deputy chief of staff for Latta, said in an email that he “has proven himself to be one of the most effective legislators on the Committee. He is the right person at the right time to lead Republicans at Energy and Commerce and is discussing the leadership slot with his colleagues.”
Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) is also considering a run for Energy and Commerce’s Republican leader, Guthrie spokeswoman Lauren Gaydos said.
McMorris Rodgers is undeterred.
“I had one of the toughest races in 2018, and a lot of people wanted to say that the top Republican woman in the House was in trouble, and in the end we won by nearly 10 points,” she said, referring to her win against Democrat Lisa Brown. “So I know what it means to be targeted.”
Current ranking member Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) shook up the leadership race with his surprise October announcement that he would retire next year. Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) reconsidered his choice to leave Congress in order to run for the position, but ultimately decided against it.
A vote on the committee’s leadership won’t come for almost a year, but McMorris Rodgers has begun passing out cards to her colleagues to highlight her legislative accomplishments and fundraising hauls. She raised more than $17 million for the party during the last election cycle, according to her campaign.
One of her biggest policy goals is easing federal permitting for hydropower, the top source of Washington state’s electricity. The state’s 5th District, which she represents is home to three federally-run hydroelectric dams, including the mammoth Grand Coulee dam.
The process to relicense the dams can take up to 10 years, she said. She worked with Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) in 2013 to enact the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act, which streamlined the permitting process for small hydropower projects, and plans to introduce two more bills, including one that would reform the relicensing process.
While hydropower is the least expensive source of renewable energy, it’s also tangled up with other environmental issues, notably imperiling the survival of threatened and endangered salmon that can’t cross dams to spawn.
McMorris Rodgers wants to change the Endangered Species Act to make it easier to license and operate dams.
“I think we need to really move forward in a way that’s going to ensure that we’re being good stewards and that we are saving our endangered species, but also not hurting our economy,” she said.
She received a 6% score on environmental issues from the League of Conservation Voters, though she repeatedly voted against cuts to spending for the Energy Department’s renewable energy programs.
McMorris Rodgers was painted as a rising star in a party that is struggling to recruit women to serve in Congress. Her name was floated as a potential running mate to Mitt Romney in 2012, and Trump was close to nominating her to serve as Interior Secretary in 2017 before choosing Ryan Zinke.
A protege of former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who took her under his wing as a member on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, McMorris Rodgers served as chair of the Republican conference for six years, and delivered the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address.
“I found her advice over the years invaluable,” Boehner said in a brief interview.
While she maintains that she supports both men and women Republicans, McMorris Rodgers has a history of backing women in other congressional races, particularly underdog candidates.
Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) recalled how McMorris Rodgers was rooting for her when she ran to fill a vacant House seat.
“She was the only member of Congress to support me when I ran the first time,” said Brooks, who sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee and is retiring at the end of her term. “I was in a very, very, tough primary and we met and she said ‘I’m in for you’.” Brooks won that race by one percentage point.
While McMorris Rodgers isn’t the top-ranking contender for Republican leader on Energy and Commerce, that may not hurt her chances, Brooks said.
“It’s not always just straight seniority and who’s had leadership on subcommittees—you have to really have the confidence of the committee, you have to have really great relationships with everybody on the committee,” Brooks said.
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