By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In the last three weeks, she has sparred on national television with Democrats over Republican policies toward women, been called a "lying mouthpiece" by a liberal blog, and chided former House speaker Nancy Pelosi.
In the world of conservative politics, Republican Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers has arrived.
McMorris Rodgers has represented Washington state in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2005 but spent much of that time in relative obscurity, even while rising in 2009 to become the only woman among the senior Republican leadership in Congress.
That low-profile was raised in March, with three words that still make McMorris Rodgers cringe: "War on women."
It is the phrase Democrats began using to cast Republicans as insensitive on issues such as equal pay for women, healthcare, protection against domestic abuse and abortion rights.
For McMorris Rodgers, 42, it was a call to action at a time when her male colleagues seemed reluctant to fire back at Democrats.
"I felt compelled to stand up and try to counter this myth" of a Republican "war on women," said McMorris Rodgers, vice chair of the 242-member Republican conference in the House.
In recent months she has become one of her party's chief counter-punchers to criticism from Democrats.
She has appeared on TV and written defiant opinion articles, saying that Democrats are accusing Republicans of being anti-women because the Democrats do not want to discuss President Barack Obama's handling of the economy and the federal debt.
A PRO-BUSINESS APPROACH
Such arguments might be helping Mitt Romney, the likely Republican nominee to face Obama in the November 6 election.
For months, polls showed Obama with a significant lead over Romney among women, but recent surveys have shown the gap closing. One poll - the CBS/New York Times survey - recently showed Romney with a slight lead among women.
A focus on free-market enterprise runs through McMorris Rodgers' conservative voting record, which she says reflects her stance that all women, like men, are better served when businesses can flourish without being too burdened by government.
That is how she justifies votes that draw her the most criticism from Democrats, such as her opposition to a 2009 bill that made it easier for women to sue for pay discrimination.
The law, one of the signature legislative achievements of Obama's administration, was known as the "Lilly Ledbetter Law," after a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co worker who had lost her claim of pay discrimination before the Supreme Court because she waited too long to sue. The law loosened the statute of limitations for such lawsuits.
"First off, Republicans believe in equal pay for equal work," McMorris Rodgers said. "But in 2009, Democrats didn't bother to work with Republicans on this or other issues, and passed a bill that's a trial lawyer's dream. All it does is open the door to more lawsuits and make it harder for job creation."
Seated in her office across the street from the U.S. Capitol, McMorris Rodgers added in an interview, "The Republican Party is the party of equal opportunity."
On display are framed photos of her family: Cole, 5, Grace, 1, and her husband, Brian, a retired Navy commander who now works at home.
"My husband has a new appreciation for stay-at-home parents," McMorris Rodgers said. "Lots of work."
On Wednesday, McMorris Rodgers was at center stage of a dispute between the Republican-led House and the Democratic-led Senate over the renewal of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, a law aimed at tackling domestic abuse.
McMorris Rodgers is a co-sponsor of a House bill to reauthorize the law. Her measure does not have the specific safeguards for gays, illegal immigrants and Native Americans that are in the Senate version.
Hundreds of advocacy groups call the House bill inadequate and warn it would weaken the 1994 law. The White House backs the Senate-passed version and threatens to veto the House bill.
McMorris Rodgers brushed off objections and urged colleagues to show "support for their mothers, wives, daughters, neighbors and friends" by voting for the House measure, which passed her chamber on a mostly party-line vote.
Two days before the House vote, McMorris Rodgers faced a grilling on MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews" about the House bill's lack of coverage for women in same-sex relationships, a particularly hot topic since Obama declared his support for gay marriages last week.
McMorris Rodgers briefly searched for the right words, then told Matthews that "there's nothing under federal law that currently recognizes same-sex couples."
"But you're a congresswoman. You write the law," said Matthews, a top aide to Democratic House speaker Tip O'Neill in the 1980s who went on to become a journalist and TV commentator.
The liberal blog Daily Kos later posted a story on the encounter with a headline that said: "Matthews rattles lying mouthpiece McMorris Rodgers."
STRIKING BACK AT PELOSI
While McMorris Rodgers has learned to take such criticism, she's also become adept at dishing it out to Democratic leaders - including Pelosi, who was the first woman to serve as House speaker before her party lost control of the chamber in the 2010 elections.
Pelosi is among the Democrats who have accused Republicans of waging a legislative war on women. Democrats have criticized efforts by Republican-led state legislatures to impose new limits on abortion and Republican drives in Congress to cut health programs for women.
Democrats also have denounced Republicans' calls to eliminate federal aid to Planned Parenthood, a private group that provides healthcare services to women, in addition to abortions.
They pointedly noted that House Republicans held a hearing in February on insurance coverage of birth control that featured an all-male panel.
"Where are the women?" Pelosi asked then.
In a recent appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press," McMorris Rodgers fired back at Pelosi: "It could be argued that it was the American women that really voted out, fired, the first woman speaker of the House."
A senior Democratic aide offered a mixed review of the top Republican woman in Congress.
"She's a disciplined, intelligent and engaging messenger," the aide said. "The problem is her rhetoric" of wanting to help women "doesn't match Republican policy making."
McMorris Rodgers said she is determined to court women to support the Republican Party - and Mitt Romney's bid for president - by talking about pocketbook issues such as jobs and healthcare.
That includes eliminating Obama's healthcare overhaul, which she says is too expensive and hurts small businesses.
"Republicans who only talk about finances are not going to attract women voters," McMorris Rodgers said. "Let's talk about healthcare choices ... families, raising children and trying to find a job in a tough economy. These are women's issues and Republican issues for 2012."
(Editing by David Lindsey and Jackie Frank)