House Republicans are going to war "for" women, but some people have their doubts

There are questions on the left and right

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Congressional Republicans are trying to woo women voters by going to war “for” them.

House Republicans last week introduced a legislative package aimed at working women that is largely considered part of a new concerted effort to turn the “War On Women” into a “War For Women.” But women on the left and the right are either questioning the legitimacy of the bills or wondering whether it’s all just a campaign gag as the mid-term elections heat up.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., Republican Conference Chair and former chairman of the Women’s Caucus, held a press conference to present  “Legislation to Empower Americans at Work & at Home.” Some of the 10 bills already have passed the House and others are new. Only one, the Increasing Job Training Programs, has been enacted into law.

The package includes measures to increase job training, create tax breaks for families with children, push flexible working hours and give more power to charter schools. Taken together, the bills aim to help families in general and women in particular – married and single women.

“You think about a changing 21st-century workforce and how women make up half of our workforce. Fifty percent are the primary income earners in their households," McMorris Rodgers said at the press conference. "They are making the majority of purchasing decisions -- 80, 85 percent of purchasing decisions -- yes, women like to shop. So our workforce has changed, but our laws also need to reflect what is a changing workforce.”

Appealing to women became a Republican Party priority following Mitt Romney’s loss to Barack Obama in 2012. A report commissioned by the Republican National Committee called the Growth & Opportunity Project,” included this line:

“Communicating, organizing, and winning the women’s vote should be part of all activities that the RNC undertakes. Women are not a ‘coalition.’ They represent more than half the voting population in the country, and our inability to win their votes is losing us elections.”

But the response to this most recent slew of legislation has fallen short of jubilant. Though the Republican Party’s new — some would say atypical -- stance on women’s working rights generated cautious praise, the substance of the bills did not. 

“I’m always happy to see members of Congress caring about women’s issues and trying to care about women voters,” said Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations at The American Association of University Women. “I think the Republican package has some interesting ideas and others are smoke and mirrors.”

A conservative women’s group also questions the overall strength of the Republican’s package and its impact.

“I think it’s good that Republicans are thinking about women. It’s funny to think that we have to look that way, but Republicans have rejected this idea of speaking to women out of fear that it’s playing gender politics,” said Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director at the Independent Women’s Forum. “I’m not sure if any of the bills they are putting forward are really going to change things—many think of them as dead on arrival.”

According to Schaeffer, the Republican Party is missing its mark.

“I do think that the bigger thing for Republicans to keep in mind is that sometimes [helping women] doesn’t require policy but it requires communication,” she said.  “I’m worrying that our side thinks they can just change things with laws or trot a woman out at the end of a campaign event. It has to be more comprehensive thinking.”

The War For Women package was presented only two days before Congress went on recess for the month of August. When members return, there will be a tight squeeze for getting any of the measures passed before members head back to their districts to campaign for the mid-terms. It’s highly unlikely that any bills will make it to President Obama’s desk before the end of the session.

Democrats have been trying to turn out single women -- a largely liberal group that doesn’t always vote -- for the midterms with solutions to address unequal pay and other work-related  concerns. Earlier this year, House Democrats presented an agenda of their own called “When Women Succeed, American Succeeds.” It addressed issues of pay, work and family balance and childcare, with 18 separate areas of focus.

The Paycheck Fairness Act has been a darling of the Democrats for years but has lacked Republican support. The bill would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to include more prohibitions for wage discrimination based on gender and would also prohibit employees from being retaliated against for discussing salaries.

“From our perspective the Democrat’s bill is more comprehensive,” said Maatz at AAUW. “Yes [Republicans] are talking about equal pay but their solution of equal pay is just a portion of the Paycheck Fairness Act. .. .These problems are not just one-trick ponies; they are comprehensive problems that require comprehensive answers.”

However, she remains hopeful that Republicans are serious in their effort to appeal to women voters and hopes they will follow through with their new initiative, regardless of the election’s outcome.

“If Republicans [use] this package and it gives them the visibility they were hoping for, and then they do well in the midterms,” she said, “I hope that they would deliver in terms of women’s issues.”

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