Deborah Pryce

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–With political players in Washington focused on the race to elect a new Republican leader in the House of Representatives, a threat to the caucus’ highest-ranking woman is going all but unnoticed.

Rank-and-file conservatives are spearheading a movement that could lead to the dethroning of Ohio Republican Deborah Pryce from her post as chair of the House Republican Conference, the fourth highest leadership position in the chamber.

The Midwestern moderate is the only Republican woman who holds a major leadership position in the House.

Arguing that an ongoing lobbying corruption scandal has presented the caucus with an opportunity to revisit its leadership, Reps. John Sweeney of New York and Dan Lungren of California are circulating a petition calling for a full slate of leadership elections when House Republicans meet on Feb. 2 to choose a new majority leader.

Fifty signatures are needed to trigger a vote on the matter, and supporters would need at least 118 votes–or a simple majority of the caucus–to hold new leadership elections. The petition had roughly 30 signatures on Tuesday.

Petition supporters are confident they will get 50 members to sign on but uncertain they will reach the 118-vote threshold needed for full elections, a senior Republican aide said. If they do, Pryce would be in danger of losing her seat, the aide said. The aide spoke anonymously to avoid retaliation for criticizing a member of Congress.

“There are those who believe her seat is weak and she would have a hard time defending it and it would be there for the taking,” the aide said. “Her name is the first one to come up whenever this conversation arises. People say, ‘Well, Deborah Pryce would be gone.'”

Pryce spokesperson Gretchen Hamel brushed off that assertion. “Members are well aware of the benefits of having a female who was a former judge and prosecutor in that position,” she said. “She’s very well appreciated by members.”

Potential challengers have kept quiet, but Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, who currently serves as vice chair of the Republican Conference, the entity in charge of the party’s message and strategic communications, has reportedly signaled interest in the job.

Kingston spokesperson David All said his boss has long wanted to chair the Republican Conference, and noted that he sent a letter to his colleagues in March saying he intended to run for the position when it next became available.

But All said his boss has rejected the call for a full slate of leadership elections and denied reports that he is actively reaching out to colleagues to build support for a potential challenge to Pryce. “We’re very much a team player,” All said.

Pryce Won Current Post in 2002

In 2002, Pryce defeated two colleagues with more conservative records in the contest to head the Republican Conference and became the chamber’s highest ranking Republican woman ever. She won re-election to a second two-year term in 2004.

Despite Pryce’s victory and an increase in the number of Republican women in the House–there are currently 24 Republican congresswomen–none has risen to the highest positions of GOP authority in the chamber. Former Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington state tried and failed in 1998. That year, as a second-tier leader, she ran for majority leader but lost to former Rep. Dick Armey of Texas.

House Republicans have in fact been more reluctant to integrate their caucus than have their peers in the other party and in the other chamber.

Women hold 11 percent–or 1 out of 9–of the GOP’s major leadership positions in the House, the lowest percentage in the leadership structures in either party or chamber. That percentage would fall to zero if Pryce were to lose her seat.

Republican women in the Senate have fared better. In that chamber women hold 33 percent–2 of 6–of the major leadership positions.

Democratic women, meanwhile, broke through the proverbial glass ceiling with the 2002 election of Nancy Pelosi of California to lead the party. In the House, Democratic women hold 29 percent–2 in 7–of their party’s significant leadership posts. In the Senate they hold 25 percent–2 in 8–of the major leadership positions.

Carol Hardy-Fanta, director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, lamented the United States’ poor record on women’s political representation. The United States ranks 66th in women’s political representation, just ahead of Angola, according to a November 2005 ranking compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an organization of international parliaments based in Geneva.

Women ‘Barely Visible’ in Congress

“Chile and Liberia both elected a woman president very recently, and we’re still struggling with these barely visible presences of women in the Congress,” said Hardy-Fanta.

Pryce could attempt to break into the GOP’s highest leadership positions if she runs to replace embattled Rep. Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican who has permanently resigned from the No. 2 position because he is tangled in campaign-finance and lobbying-corruption scandals.

But Pryce is not interested in moving up the leadership ladder at this time. “She likes her current position,” Hamel said.

One reason for reluctance may be because she is viewed as a “part of the DeLay team,” said John Samples, a political analyst at the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. “That may limit her possibilities for now. In a post-DeLay era, she could create an independent kind of base and move from there.”

Pryce, who occasionally sides with proponents of gun control and abortion rights, is the only moderate on such issues in the current circle of House Republican leaders. As such, she might have a difficult time winning support.

Three Men in Leadership Running

With Pryce off the short list, Republicans are left with three men to consider for majority leader. They are Reps. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the current majority whip; John Boehner of Ohio, the former chair of the House Republican Conference who now chairs the Education and the Workforce Committee; and John Shadegg of Arizona, who recently resigned his post as chair of the House Republican Policy Committee.

All three are committed social conservatives who are not likely to side with activists in the women’s rights issues, said Gwendolyn Mink, a professor of women’s studies at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and the daughter of the late Rep. Patsy Mink, a Democrat from Hawaii.

Another handful of socially conservative men are eyeing other opportunities to move up the leadership ladder. Reps. Darrell Issa of California and Adam Putnam of Florida are running to head the Republican Policy Committee post vacated by Shadegg. Reps. Eric Cantor of Virginia, Mike Rogers of Michigan and Todd Tiahrt of Kansas are eyeing a race for majority whip if Blunt wins the contest for majority leader.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat from the District of Columbia, said she was not surprised no women have thrown their hats in the ring–or even been mentioned as possible candidates–for any of the potential leadership openings.

“The only time a woman’s name comes up among Republicans is a show,” she said. “They know there is a sensitivity nationally around women’s rights, so every once in a while they show the flag. But it’s only a flag.”

The lack of female candidates doesn’t bother social conservatives, who say a candidate’s gender has no bearing on his or her qualifications. It is not a sign of discrimination, either, they say, and point to Republican women who have held leadership positions in Congress and in Republican presidential administrations.

“For whatever reason, no woman stepped forward to run this time around,” said Carrie Lukas, director of policy at the Independent Women’s Forum, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. “Gender politics isn’t what this thing is about. It’s about finding the right candidate to get Republicans back on track to core principles.”

Hardy-Fanta said gender is known to affect politics and policy. When women hold leadership positions, she said, research has shown they have the power to shift the agenda in women’s favor, as was demonstrated when women led the fight during this Congress for a bill aiding victims of domestic violence.

Until more women are in Congress and in leadership roles, thornier issues such as work-life balance and child care won’t be adequately addressed, Hardy-Fanta said.

“If more women were in Congress you’d see a somewhat different discussion,” she said.

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

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