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A softer Republican side in response to Obama

By Dan Merica, CNN
January 29, 2014 -- Updated 1622 GMT (0022 HKT)

(CNN) -- Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers relied heavily on themes of family and compassion to draw divisions with President Barack Obama on Tuesday in the Republican response to his State of the Union address.

In her nationally televised appearance, she knocked him for policy proposals that "won't solve the problems actually facing Americans."

Rodgers touched on different policy issues, including immigration reform, abortion, jobs and health care, but her comments lacked specifics.

Instead, Rodgers used the appearance to introduce a softer face for the Republican Party and convey a tone noticeable in its departure from past Republican responses.

"We hope the President will join us in a year of real action -- by empowering people -- not making their lives harder with unprecedented spending, higher taxes, and fewer jobs," said Rodgers. "That is what we stand for -- for an America that is every bit as compassionate as it is exceptional."

Rodgers looked to distance her response from the Congress by telling viewers that "The most important moments right now aren't happening here, they're not in the Oval Office or in the House Chamber, they're in your homes."

Rodgers, who was tapped to deliver the Republican response earlier this month, is the highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress. She has served her eastern Washington state district since 2005.

Can Obama deliver action on inequality?

Her appearance was widely seen as an attempt by the Republican Party to appeal more to women, a demographic it has struggled with in recent elections.

To do that, she pulled from her own personal story as a wife and mother of three, including a long passage about how her son, Cole, was born with Down syndrome.

Past Republican responses were often delivered in a stately room, and served as a counter to points made by the President at the time.

Rodgers, by contrast, was seated on a couch in a room with a fireplace. An aide close to her said the idea was to imitate "a living room type situation."

The aide said she didn't want to give a policy speech or get into a back-and-forth with the President, as some Republicans had done in years past.

"You realize that you are never going to compete with the spectacle of the State of the Union. You just can't," the aide said. "We opted for, given the tone and the message she is looking to deliver, just a more casual conversation."

Though, she did have a response to Obama's call for comprehensive immigration reform -- the most substantive part of her address -- and she did raise the issue of health care, as did the President.

Obama calls for action, with or without Congress

It's an Obama priority that passed the Senate last year but has since stalled in the House.

"Yes, it's time to honor our history of legal immigration," Rodgers said. "We're working on a step-by-step solution to immigration reform by first securing our borders and making sure America will always attract the best, brightest, and hardest working from around the world."

Republicans in the House have said they hope to deal with immigration reform in several small bills, instead of one comprehensive piece of legislation.

Democrats have been tepid in their support for this approach and some have said they won't sign on to any bill that doesn't clearly establish a patch to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

While Rodgers did not use the word "Obamacare" once during the address, she did about health care, an issue her party hopes to exploit politically in the midterm election campaign.

"Not long ago, I got a letter from Bette in Spokane, who hoped the President's health care law would save her money -- but found out instead that her premiums were going up nearly $700 a month," she said. "No, we shouldn't go back to the way things were, but this law is not working. Republicans believe health care choices should be yours, not the government's."

Her appearance came after Obama said he was prepared to move forward with his agenda without Congress, if necessary.

"Let's make this a year of action," Obama said. "That's what most Americans want -- for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations."

A number of Republicans also had something to say following the speech, including Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who taped his own response, and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah delivered the Tea Party reaction.

Although the speeches had a number of similar themes, there were vastly different in both substance and tone.

Paul, who stood behind a Senate lectern in a room with wood paneled walls, spoke at length and in detail about the economy and tax policy.

Lee, likewise, delivered a detailed response for the Tea Party. The Utah Republican spent a substantial amount of time on Obamacare, a law he called "an inequality Godzilla" that has robbed Americans of their insurance.

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