BALTIMORE — As House and Senate Republicans gathered to plot policy here Thursday, they vowed not to let the divisive campaign for the presidential nomination set their agenda in Congress.
Rather than try to fashion measure that suits the crowded field of presidential contenders, GOP leaders said they plan to use the next congressional session to present Americans with their vision for the country. They hope their plan will eventually merge with the priorities of the Republican nominee and boost the party's returns in November, delivering the White House and maintaining a Senate majority.
"Our presidential candidates are out there beating each other up at the moment, and that’s going to solve itself at some point here in the process,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters gathered at the Baltimore Marriott for their bicameral retreat. “We’re going to do issue development and get ready for 2017."
Senate GOP Conference Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., agreed. "I think what we want to do is articulate a clear, positive vision, agenda for the future of this country," he said. "And the presidential campaign — at some point, when we have a nominee, hopefully we’ll be able to sync up with them and their agenda."
But merging the congressional agenda with that of the eventual nominee could prove difficult if the party's choice is one of the so-called political outsiders, who have been dominating the primary race so far. Real estate mogul Donald Trump has been the front-runner for months, followed by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who touts himself as a political outsider even though he is a sitting lawmaker. Cruz regularly refers to congressional leadership and other politicians as "the Washington cartel."
Thune said he resents that characterization. "Well, I’m personally very offended to be called the establishment," he said. "I mean I just think that politics is politics. ... There’s a good amount of the American electorate, which I totally get, that’s frustrated with Washington, generally."
While that frustration plays out on the presidential campaign trail, Republicans in Congress say they will work to prove that they can govern effectively, and promote conservative policies at the same time. In Baltimore, they began discussions on what exactly that agenda will look like over the coming year, in sessions focused on the economy, health care, national security, poverty and restoring the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches.
Though noting the political implications of those policies, GOP lawmakers demurred on questions relating to specific presidential candidates. Senate Republican Policy Chairman Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said three of his colleagues are still running for president and remarked, "I love all my children equally well."
Others said the presidential race did not come up during retreat discussions. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said members have not discussed politics or the presidential candidates much at the retreat.
“You’ve got a lot of different loyalties in that room,” he said. However, Meadows said members have discussed policies they want the eventual GOP presidential nominee to get behind. “We want whoever our nominee is to take the House agenda, adopt that agenda and move forward."
Asked if that’s realistic, Meadows said, “If it’s a people’s agenda, any nominee would be foolish not to adopt it.”
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., told reporters, “We actually have a lot of things that we’ve already set the table on to run and present to voters in November."
Before Republicans try to merge their agenda which their nominee's, they might be forced to take positions on some of the front-runner's policies, which some GOP leaders have condemned. Trump's call for banning Muslims from entering the United States drew criticism from both McConnell and Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis.
They will also have to contend with congressional Democrats, who say they will force their GOP colleagues to go on the record over policies raised in the presidential race.
"If Republicans are afraid to bring their standard-bearer's policies up for votes, Democrats will hold Republicans accountable by seeking floor votes on Trump's policies ourselves," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a release Thursday.
McConnell said Republicans can also play that game, and bring up votes relating to the top two Democratic candidates for president, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt.
"Generally speaking, I’ve tried to avoid turning the Senate into a studio for the presidential campaign. But it’s worth noting that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander," McConnell said. "And so you can expect amendments that they might not like related to the Sanders or Clinton campaign. But as a general rule what I’ve tried to ask for the Senate to do is let the presidential candidates run their race.”
Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.
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