By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the highest-ranking female Republican in the U.S. Congress, will deliver her party's response to President Barack Obama's annual State of the Union address on Tuesday.
House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday announced they had selected McMorris Rodgers to present the high-profile speech.
The 44-year-old conservative was relatively obscure before being elected House Republican Conference chair, the No. 4 leadership position in the Republican-controlled chamber, in November 2012.
McMorris Rodgers has represented her district in eastern Washington state since 2005, establishing a solid conservative voting record by opposing federal funds for abortion and legislation encouraging equal pay for women.
She also voted against Obama's healthcare reform law and the $820 billion economic stimulus measure the president won in 2009 to help jump-start the ailing U.S. economy.
McMorris Rodgers is also the only woman to give birth to three children while serving in Congress.
The State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress is an opportunity for the president to outline his broad themes and legislative priorities for the coming year.
The choice of McMorris Rodgers to deliver the rebuttal comes
about nine months before November's congressional elections and as Republicans try to improve their appeal to women voters who heavily favored Obama, a Democrat, in his 2012 re-election.
"Through the lens of her family's experiences, Cathy will share our vision for a better America built on a thriving middle class," Boehner said in a statement.
Early in the 2012 presidential campaign, McMorris Rodgers was sometimes mentioned as a possible vice presidential running mate for Mitt Romney, who ultimately chose another House Republican, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
While the opportunity to rebut the president's State of the Union address can be a public relations dream for many politicians, it comes with risks as well.
In 2009, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal was in the limelight and at the time was seen as a contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
But Jindal's speech was widely criticized by pundits who said it fell flat.
Last year, another Republican presidential hopeful, freshman Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, told a national audience of his humble beginnings as the son of Cuban immigrants. Rubio attacked Obama's domestic policies while trying to soften his party's image as a defender of the rich.
But much of Rubio's message was swamped by a bottle of water - one that he reached for out of camera range in the middle of his speech - that he needed to lubricate his dry mouth.
The nationally televised gaffe became the butt of comedians' jokes and political pundits' speculation on whether his chances for the White House had been diminished.
McMorris Rodgers is expected to attack Obamacare - a theme Republicans have been pounding away on since the law to expand health insurance coverage to millions of Americans was enacted in early 2010.
Republicans have argued that Obamacare is unworkable, will cost jobs and raise healthcare costs despite Democratic claims to the contrary.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)