While celebrating the Seattle Seahawks’ Super Bowl win at the White House in May, President Barack Obama veered toward Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler and asked what has become a familiar question.
After the child was born, three months premature, weighing 2 pounds, 12 ounces and without kidneys, Obama had sent the Camas Republican a handwritten note, saying he was praying for her family. In the East Room of the White House that day, the two talked about their daughters.
“We were just being parents, talking about our kids,” Herrera Beutler said.
As she campaigns for a third term, she’s used to sharing the spotlight with her daughter, who turns 1 year old July 15. With nearly every professional interaction she has had since her daughter was born — whether it’s about securing funding for dredging the Columbia River or honoring an NFL team — people want to know how the “miracle baby” is doing.
And she’s quite well, thank you.
But now, as the congresswoman works to balance a high-profile career with being a new mom of a medically complex child, it will be up to voters to decide how Herrera Beutler is doing.
“The most people are going to know about her, quite frankly, is (the situation with) her child and that’s kind of dominated everything,” said Jim Moore, a political analyst and director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University.
Some answers have been edited for brevity.
o On immigration:
"We need to talk about legal status, not citizenship. There's a distinction. You have to earn citizenship and there is a conversation about how we do that. ... I don't think anybody wants to see people breaking the law get rewarded, but at the same time, we can make a way for people to earn it and I think that's one of the areas the federal government has really fallen down on. ... If you're a poor mom in Central America and you're looking around and recognizing 'Hey, if my kids grow up here, they are going to deal with drugs, cartels and violence, but if they grow up in America they are going to have a better shot.' I mean, if I was that mom, I would be trying everything I could to get here and I think that we need to make sure if they want to come here and play by the rules that we make it feasible ... We still need to secure our borders, as evidenced in recent weeks, if anybody had a doubt. We still have this problem, we need to fix it. One thing I've learned in this place is nothing is ever dead so hopefully we can piece together something that the majority of my conference can agree on because we know it's a problem that needs to be fixed."
o On proposed Port of Vancouver oil terminal:
"I've met with some of the waterfront developers ... and boy, they have some really legitimate concerns. This isn't a decision that I will get to make, but I have decided that my role is going to be on the safety side. ... Philosophically though, I'm not opposed to any type of energy. So if it's oil, if it's wind, if it's nuclear, if it's solar, if it's geothermal, I don't make decisions based on ... the type of commodity. But I think we as a community need to have the safety aspect first and foremost, and I think that's kind of where the governor is at. I read his letter two weeks ago, he's really big on the safety side and I think that's the right place to be."
o On the Affordable Care Act:
"I do think it needs to be repealed and I still believe it needs to be replaced. You talk about high-risk pools, I actually think there are 70,000 people nationwide that fit into that chronic-care, most-expensive, insurance-drops-them type of category. And I don't think we need to break the entire system to get at fixing it for those folks. ... We didn't need to shift a majority of people who were on private coverage into a state system. ... To push people off private insurance into a Medicaid system where they are basically limiting care, to me, it's not worth it. We can and should do better. And this is an area where I think Republicans have blown it. I am pushing for us not to blow it again. I think when Republicans didn't push (for) purchase of health insurance across state lines, when they didn't push high-risk pools in every state, when they didn't do small-business health plans -- there are several different things they didn't do -- it set the stage for Democrats to come in and say, 'Well, here's our solution' and I think we're all paying the price for it."
It’s an assertion Herrera Beutler refutes.
When she visits the Port of Ilwaco, sure, people ask about Abigail, she said. But then they say, “Thank you for helping us with our small ports.” And in Skamania County, it’s “Thanks for your help with the forest road bill.”
But ever the diplomat, the congresswoman notes, “If the one thing I leave in this world is a legacy of having a beautiful, healthy, strong, amazing, miracle daughter, then I’m happy with that.”
Affordable Care Act
Months spent at the neonatal intensive care unit did not change the congresswoman’s take on Obamacare.
One of her first big votes in Congress was to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Since the vote, her message has been it’s time for Republicans to offer specific health care reforms, instead of calling for the repeal of Obamacare.
Republicans missed an opportunity to offer a plan, she said, and by not doing so “it set the stage for Democrats to come in and say, ‘Well, here’s our solution.’ “
“And I think we’re all paying the price for it,” Herrera Beutler said.
She’s pushing leadership, she said, to make sure Republicans don’t miss another opportunity.
“We have to ask ourselves, ‘Did we do it the right way?’ ” she said.
For her, the answer is no.
Her ideas: Let people buy insurance plans across state lines, make it more competitive. And let small businesses band together, union style, to negotiate lower prices and better plans.
While she was pregnant with Abigail, her first child, she was given devastating news. The baby had Potter’s Syndrome. The condition prevents kidney development, reduces amniotic fluid production and often prevents lungs from developing. Doctors told Herrera Beutler the baby would not live.
“We are praying for a miracle,” she wrote on her Facebook wall, announcing the news.
Herrera Beutler went through an experimental treatment, pumping saline injections in her uterus, to allow the baby’s lungs to develop while in the womb.
After she was born, the first infant on record to survive the condition, she spent months in the hospital in California. Herrera Beutler was by her side. The little girl, named after Abigail Adams, is still on dialysis and is expected to receive a kidney from her father, Dan, sometime this fall. She is expected to live a full life.
Late last month, Herrera Beutler hinted she might let her experience drive, at least in part, a policy agenda. She introduced a measure that would create a nationwide network of providers to help medically complex children who are on Medicaid.
Oregon Rep. Greg Walden had several conversations with Herrera Beutler after Abigail’s diagnosis. While Walden was serving in Oregon’s statehouse and considering a bid for governor, his son was diagnosed with a heart defect while in utero. The baby died shortly after birth.
Dealing with deeply personal and painful news in the public eye is not easy, Walden said. He added Herrera Beutler has conducted herself with “strength and grace.”
One of Herrera Beutler’s mentors, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who is the party’s minority leader, also gave birth while serving in Congress and also has a child with special needs.
“It only complements her and makes her a legislator people can relate to, someone who has had difficult experiences while serving,” McMorris Rodgers, R-Colville, said.
At a campaign fundraising event at the Hilton Vancouver Washington last month, Herrera Beutler told the crowd she was tempted to not use her prepared notes.
“My poor team in the back is going, ‘Don’t do it,’ ” she said.
Her team didn’t look nervous.
Herrera Beutler proceeded, barely glancing at her notes. She seamlessly hit her talking points, floating from highlighting her work to reduce federal regulations to espousing the American Dream.
Likely one of the youngest adults in the room at 35, Herrera Beutler still manages to strike a balance between being the girl from Ridgefield and the polished congresswoman.
Before redistricting in 2011, the 3rd Congressional District was what Moore described as “wild and wonderful.” Democrats Brian Baird and Jolene Unsoeld once represented the district, which stretched from the Interstate 5 Bridge into Olympia. So did conservative Republican Linda Smith.
1996 Graduates from Prairie High School, where she played basketball and participated in 4-H.
2004 Graduates from University of Washington, earning her Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications.
2005-07 Works as senior legislative aide for U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Colville.
NOV. 2007 Appointed to fill 18th Legislative District seat vacated by Rep. Richard Curtis, R-La Center.
OCT. 2010 Time magazine includes Herrera Beutler in its "40 under 40" feature, calling her "a rising star of American politics."
NOV. 2010 At age 31, defeats Democrat Denny Heck, 53 percent to 47 percent, to succeed Democrat Brian Baird as U.S. Representative for 3rd Congressional District.
MARCH 2011 Introduces "Savings Start with Us" Act, which would have reduced the salaries of members of Congress, the President and Vice President by 10 percent. Bill is not enacted.
JULY 15, 2013 Daughter Abigail Rose Beutler is born at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland, weighing 2 pounds, 12 ounces at 28 weeks gestation. Abigail is first known long-term survivor of Potter's Syndrome, previously considered fatal. Abigail was released from the hospital in December.
o Breaks from her party to end government shutdown and tells her GOP colleagues "It's time for my colleagues to face reality."
o Introduces a bill coined the Fundamentally Improving Salmon Habitat or FISH Act, which would let the U.S. Army Corps contract with local nonprofits on projects costing less than $2 million. Currently before Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans, and Insular Affairs.
JAN. 2014 Herrera Beutler's "forest roads" bill, or the Silviculture Regulatory Consistency Act, was included in the federal Farm Bill. The measure aims to reduce federal regulations on forest roads. Forest Roads, H.R. 2026, was signed into law on Feb. 7, 2014.
MAY 2014 People magazine features the congresswoman and her family in an article "Medical Miracle: The Girl who Lived."
JUNE 2014 Introduces legislation aiming to help medically complex children who are on Medicaid. The measure would create a network of children's hospitals aimed at coordinating care for children with complex needs.
Now, Herrera Beutler sits in relative political security in a district that encompasses conservative Clark County and rural Southwest Washington.
State Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, who served with her for a short period in the statehouse, called her an enigma.
“I don’t know a lot about her because she keeps a lot about herself and her positions to herself and I think it’s a political calculation that behooves her,” Moeller said.
Safe districts create people “who stick to their talking points because they don’t have to get off them,” Moore said. Strategically, the only time it would make sense to stray is “if she gets a strong opponent who challenges her on the talking points or she sees the talking points aren’t working for her anymore.”
This year, she is being challenged by Michael Delavar, a Republican with Libertarian and Tea Party leanings, and Democrat Bob Dingethal, whose background includes environmental activism and working as Sen. Maria Cantwell’s Southwest Washington director. Neither has been elected to a partisan office.
Coffees vs. town halls
One of the criticisms launched at the congresswoman by her opponents was a move from holding traditional town hall meetings, advertised well in advance, to hosting “community coffees.” With relatively short notice, her staff calls and invites nearby residents, of both parties, to the coffees.
After a contentious town hall in 2011 — where people grilled her on why she voted to slash National Public Radio’s funding and others showed up to support Planned Parenthood and protest her vote for cutting family-planning services — Herrera Beutler said some of her constituents felt disenfranchised, afraid to make their way to the microphone.
She’s held 34 community coffees, she said, and 15 telephone town halls. Some focus on specific issues and others are all-encompassing.
“I’ve taken a vigorous approach to holding town halls throughout this district … I’m not going to let up on that and I’m going to do it in a way that I think best allows people to share honestly and openly and frankly what their thoughts and needs are,” she said.
Walden said she’s tackling the issues you “don’t read about on the front page of the Washington Post.” But the congresswoman, whom he said has a reputation for being an engaged and intelligent lawmaker at the Capitol, never forgets who sent her “to the dance,” he said.
“The way I run this office is what are the needs down to the local level,” Herrera Beutler said. “And how can I help meet them. And man, I feel like we’ve had some tremendous success legislatively.”
She points to legislation she introduced, coined the Fundamentally Improving Salmon Habitat, or FISH Act, which would let the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contract with local nonprofits to take the lead on salmon habitat restoration efforts costing less than $2 million. In April she toured the Washougal River Greenway Trail with employees from the Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group, who praised her effort.
She also pushed through a measure known as the “forest roads” bill that codified the Environmental Protection Agency’s treatment of private forest roads, to prevent extra regulations and permitting requirements.
“Someone in Lewis County, they are going to automatically think about my work with the Corps, versus probably the CRC (Columbia River Crossing),” she said.
“They are all going to think about the issues that are important to them locally, but that’s cool with me,” she said. “If my legacy is I’m the local congresswoman … I’ll take it. I’m not going to be the one building a national profile. I’ve never approached the office that way.”
Though Herrera Beutler likes the idea of being the local congresswoman, she’s no stranger to the national headlines.
She was named in Time magazine’s “40 under 40” list of people to watch. The magazine called her a rising political star. And more recently, People magazine featured her family and the story of Abigail.
And she’s tight with the party’s leadership.
Last year, when Herrera Beutler was at Abigail’s side in the hospital, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor came to Vancouver to raise money for her.
“You don’t forget when people do things like that for you,” she said. Herrera Beutler was stunned, along with the rest of the country, when Cantor was ousted in this year’s primary by a member of the Tea Party.
Congressional vote trackers at GovTrack.us call her a “centrist Republican.” In 2013, they recorded her as having missed only 14 votes out of 1,161. Since the birth of Abigail, who was in the hospital from July until December, that jumped to missing 329 votes of 2,605, about 12.6 percent.
So, what’s next for Herrera Beutler? She’s characteristically reticent to stay.
Even looking two years into the future is a long time.
She has no designs on staying in the U.S. House forever. “It’s just not how I’m built,” she said.
And the Senate? “That’s even worse.”
In a recent Columbian editorial board meeting, she was asked about the possibility of joining a presidential ticket.
“I actually, genuinely, do love the Northwest, in particular Southwest Washington,” she said. “I love our way of life and D.C. doesn’t offer any of that. So we’re taking it one election at a time.”