But that was hardly the end of it as a diverse group of Republicans joined in to respond to the president’s address Tuesday night. Sens. Mike Lee (Utah) and Rand Paul (Ky.), two tea party favorites, also delivered high-profile responses, pushing back on Obama’s message with a sharp ideological edge.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), an ally of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and the first Cuban American elected to Congress, delivered another widely seen response, delivering much of McMorris Rodgers’s leadership-approved speech in Spanish.
Dozens of other Republicans immediately weighed in with news releases and observations to reporters stationed in Statuary Hall at the Capitol, the traditional post-speech gathering place for politicians.
The flurry of reactions partly reflects the ongoing battle for power within Republican ranks, where competing blocs, from congressional leaders to conservative advocacy organizations, have quarreled over the party’s platform and its playbook for divided government.
According to a new Washington Post-ABC poll, just 36 percent of Republicans have confidence in their congressional leaders to make the right decisions, with 63 percent not confident. Democrats are far more supportive of their leaders, with 56 percent expressing confidence in the Democratic leadership teams to make the right calls.
In an interview, Paul brushed off the suggestion that he was clashing with McMorris Rodgers. “I don’t consider it to be competing,” he said. “It’s just that we live in an age where you can get your opinion out there, but if you don’t videotape it and send it out, nobody listens. So we’re just trying to get more people to listen.”
For McMorris Rodgers, the low-key chairman of the House Republican Conference, the rebuttal slot was an opportunity to step into the national spotlight. The farm-raised legislator struck an inclusive tone, blending talk of her family — she has three young children, including a son with Down syndrome — with platitudes and policy pitches.
“I’d like to share a more hopeful Republican vision,” McMorris Rodgers said.
On health care, McMorris Rodgers said Republicans will continue to fight to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and she knocked the administration for the rocky rollout of the president’s signature law.
“We’ve all talked to too many people who have received cancellation notices they didn’t expect or who can no longer see the doctors they always have,” she said. “No, we shouldn’t go back to the way things were, but the president’s health-care law is not working.”
“Republicans believe health-care choices should be yours, not the government’s,” she added. “And that whether you’re a boy with Down syndrome or a woman with breast cancer, you can find coverage and a doctor who will treat you.”
McMorris Rodgers spoke from a quiet room inside the Capitol, where she sat on a gold couch with an American flag, triangularly folded, displayed on a shelf behind her. Her manner was relaxed, her style straightforward and scripted.
Over the past week, aides to McMorris Rodgers and other House GOP leaders have been busy promoting her, using her prominent perch as part of a counteroffensive to Democrats, who have aggressively criticized the party’s approach to women’s issues.
In recent days, McMorris Rodgers granted sit-down interviews to ABC News and CBS News and used social-media applications to share candid scenes from her preparations. “I’ve got my #SOTU remarks in one hand and 2-month-old Brynn in another,” McMorris Rodgers wrote in an Instagram post. “It really doesn’t get much better than this!”
McMorris Rodgers is the first female Republican to give the party response since 2000, when Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) spoke along with Sen. Bill Frist (Tenn.). The last solo GOP female response came in 1995 from Christine Todd Whitman, then governor of New Jersey. Whitman and Collins support abortion rights; McMorris Rodgers does not.
The official response is annually decided by GOP leaders in the House and Senate. This year, the collective wisdom of Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) settled on McMorris Rodgers, who was elected to the House GOP’s fourth-
ranking leadership position in 2012, beating out a conservative challenger.
“As a mother of three, she is able to frame the response as a focus on outcomes, not only on policy,” said David Winston, a veteran pollster who works closely with House Republicans. “But this is about more than partisanship or image; it is about defining an alternative, and that is what she is able to do for Republicans.”
McMorris Rodgers’s take, however, was not the only Republican rebuttal to the president. Three other GOP legislators gave heavily publicized responses. Lee and Paul, a pair of tea-party-aligned senators, delivered harsher critiques of the address, a sign that some Republicans want a more forceful assertion of conservative principles.
Lee, a youthful 42-year-old freshman, appeared at the National Press Club, delivering a response sponsored by the Tea Party Express, a political action committee. His speech, which was broadcast live on the group’s Web site, underscored his ascent as a rising star of activists and followed in the footsteps of Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Paul, who have delivered past tea party responses.
Lee hit chiefly on economic issues and imparted his broadsides against the Obama administration with a tinge of exasperation, expressing disappointment with the president’s positions on federal spending, regulatory policy and taxes. Calling on Republicans to articulate a “conservative reform agenda,” he said that the GOP will struggle to win a mandate unless it makes better arguments.
Sal Russo, a Tea Party Express adviser, said that Lee delivered the speech directly to a camera, with only a handful of aides as his audience. “It’s not a dinner or cocktail party,” he said. “We were looking for someone who is identified with the tea party to articulate our issues.”
Lee rose to prominence last year during the 16-day government shutdown when he worked alongside Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), urging Republican leaders to be more combative during deliberations.
Paul, who is considering a presidential run, also issued a Web rebuttal Tuesday, putting out a 10-minute pre-recorded speech on his Web site, YouTube and Facebook. Paul’s response, given from his office, echoed Lee’s barbed tone and economic focus.
A running theme for both conservative responses was the desire for a more robust Republican anti-poverty program, looking to combat Obama, who spent much of his speech addressing economic opportunity.
“Americans know in their hearts that something is wrong,” Lee said. “We are facing an inequality crisis, one to which the president has paid lip service but seems uninterested in truly confronting.”
Paul, who touted “economic freedom zones” in a December visit to Detroit, made a case for free enterprise. “The ticket to the middle class is not higher taxes on the very businesses that must create jobs,” he said. “Economic growth will come when we lower taxes for everyone.”
A Paul aide said that the senator’s words were inspired by Jack Kemp, the late New York congressman, who coordinated anti-
poverty policy during George H.W. Bush’s administration in the early 1990s.
Lee, who has delivered a series of speeches on rebranding the Republican Party over the past year, went on to highlight a smattering of conservative initiatives, including an expansion of access to higher education and an elimination of targeted tax credits for energy companies. As with McMorris Rodgers, he committed to repealing the federal health-care law.
Ros-Lehtinen, the most senior Hispanic Republican in the House, rounded out the takes, interpreting a lightly edited version of McMorris Rodgers’s speech for Spanish-language media outlets, including Telemundo and Univision. She performed a similar duty in 2011 when she translated the official response of Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.).
Ros-Lehtinen’s rendering is part of a push by party leaders to herald Spanish-speaking Republicans. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who once interned in Ros-Lehtinen’s office, delivered the official response to Obama last year, speaking in Spanish and English.