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Multiple GOP responses to State of the Union: Are they a sign of party division?

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) arrives for the Republican weekly policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington January 28, 2014.
By Robert Costa and Paul Kane, Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The official GOP rebuttal to the president’s State of the Union address was delivered by Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the House GOP’s highest-ranking woman, who asserted that President Barack Obama was making it tougher for a lot of Americans.

“Right now, the president’s policies are making people’s lives harder. Republicans have plans to close the gap.”

But that was hardly the end of it as a diverse group of Republicans joined in to respond to the President’s State of the Union address on Tuesday. Utah Sen. Mike Lee and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, two tea-party favorites, also delivered high profile responses, pushing back on the president’s message with a sharp ideological edge.

Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, an ally of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and the first Cuban American elected to Congress, delivered another widely-seen response, translating much of McMorris Rodgers’ leadership-approved speech into Spanish.

Dozens of other Republicans immediately weighed in with press releases and observations to reporters stationed in Statuary Hall at the Capitol, the traditional post-speech gathering place for politicos.

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.”

‘A more hopeful Republican vision’

For McMorris Rodgers, the low-key chair 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 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.”

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 counter-offensive 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 Maine Sen. Susan Collins spoke with Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist. The last solo GOP female response came in 1995 from Christine Todd Whitman, then-governor of New Jersey. Both 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, Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-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.”

Harsher replies

Lee and Paul, a pair of tea-party aligned senators, delivered harsher critiques of the president’s address, a sign that some Republicans desire a more forceful assertion of conservative principles.

Lee, a youthful, 42-year-old freshman, appeared in Washington 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 website, underscored his ascent as a rising star of activists and followed in the footsteps of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Paul, who have delivered past tea-party counters.

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 the GOP will struggle to win a mandate unless it makes better arguments.

Sal Russo, a Tea Party Express adviser, said Lee delivered the speech directly to a camera with only a handful of aides as an 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 Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to urging GOP leaders to be more combative during deliberations.

Paul, who is considering a presidential run, also issued a web rebuttal on Tuesday, publishing a 10-minute, pre-recorded speech on his website, 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 income inequality.

“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 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 GOP 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 Latino Republican in the House, rounded out the takes, translating a lightly-edited version of McMorris Rodgers’ speech for Spanish-language media outlets, including, Telemundo and Univision. She performed a similar duty in 2011 when she translated Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s official response.

Ros-Lehtinen’s rendering is part of a push by party leaders to herald Spanish-speaking Republicans. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who once interned in Ros-Lehtinen’s office, delivered the official response to Obama last year, speaking in both Spanish and English.

Washington Post staffer Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.


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