BALTIMORE — Pitching policy ideas over doom-and-gloom rhetoric, Republican lawmakers are taking steps to at least preserve their control in Congress in the event that Donald Trump becomes the party's presidential nominee.
Huddled behind closed doors in Baltimore for a three-day retreat this week, congressional Republicans sought to come up with a "bold agenda" to show voters they're "the party of ideas," amid the ruckus GOP presidential primary. The agenda might not have much of an influence on drowning out the divisive element of the presidential campaigns, but they’re hoping it could bring voters to the polls in November, and — if needed — help incumbents in tough re-election races distance themselves from the top of the ticket.
"What we want to be prepared to do is see that our members — both House and Senate — are positioned well going into this election year to make their case to their voters about why we need to retain the Republican majority in the United States in Congress," said South Dakota Sen. John Thune on Wednesday.
Thune and other lawmakers repeatedly side-stepped questions about how their policy agenda would sync with the presidential nominee if it ends up being Trump or Ted Cruz. But they insisted that these ideas would ultimately unite the Republican Party, and instead, pointed to the Democratic presidential primary as one that could be more damaging.
"I don't want to wade into that. I just think that whoever (the nominee) is, it's going to be a competitive presidential campaign," Thune said. “But our senators are going to run their own campaigns to make an effective argument to their voters."
He later added: “What I'm sort of perceiving right now is what's happening with the Democrats. You've got Hillary, who everybody thought was going to the be the heir apparent, but she's proven to be not a very good candidate. I think it's a wide open race. I don’t know who our nominee is going to be...It's a very unpredictable political year.”
With a narrow majority in the Senate, Republicans are defending several seats in swing states in November. Party leaders fear that a Trump or Cruz presidential nomination could alienate the independent voters those senators need to keep their seats or discourage voters from showing up at the polls.
Some of those senators up for re-election skipped the retreat on Thursday for more face time with their constituents.
On the House side, Republicans would likely still keep their majority if Cruz or Trump are the nominees, but it could cost them more seats. Speaker Paul Ryan — who has been leading the policy push on issues like health care, taxes, and criminal justice — recently asked a top pollster about which of the presidential candidates would hurt down-ballot Republicans the most, Politico reported. The answer, according to the poll conducted by The Tarrance Group, was Cruz and Trump.
As the House promises a bold policy agenda, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is pushing a focus on passing 12 separate spending bills this year instead of a large package at the end of the year. The approach -- which he realizes is not exactly going to "titillate" voters -- would keep vulnerable incumbents from having to vote on controversial legislation while allowing them to tout specific spending measures in their home states.
"Our presidential candidates are out there beating each other up at the moment, and that's going to solve itself sometime in the process,” he said. “What Paul has laid out, I agree with totally, which is we're going to do issue development ...One obvious step I'd mention we can take is not going to titillate the public, but — it would be the first time since 1994 — is do all the appropriations bills."
Lawmakers held breakout policy discussions on jobs and the economy, health care, national security, and poverty as part of hammering out the agenda. Republicans heard from their leadership, but also Jim Koch, co-founder of Boston Brewing Company; James Park, CEO of Fitbit; and several columnists and policy thinkers including Larry Kudlow and George Will.
Besides touting their policy push, nearly all Republicans who spoke to reporters during the retreat also quickly pivoted to the Democratic primary when asked about divisions within their own party -- a tactic vulnerable incumbents could start using more on the campaign trail, especially in the aftermath of new early state polls showing frontrunner Clinton losing ground.
"If you look on the Democratic side, there's actually more fractures there right now," House Majority Whip Steve Scalise told reporters when asked about Trump and Cruz. "If you look at the fact that Hillary Clinton has a trust factor still within her own party. She has not been able to close the deal on the Democratic side. In fact, Bernie Sanders seems to be gaining momentum and nobody wants to talk about that. They want to talk about Republican nominees."
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy went so far as to say Clinton wasn't as strong of a candidate as she was in 2008.
"I think in a short amount of time you're going to start writing more about the Democratic campaign," he told reporters. "You think it's all a foregone conclusion? Remember this: Hillary Clinton was stronger eight years ago than she is today. Hillary Clinton won California, Texas and New York and she did not become the nominee. She lost every single state that had a caucus. I think you're underestimating the movement within the Democratic party and how far left they've gone and she's gone."
And hours before another GOP presidential debate, Sen. John Barrasso accused the Democrats of "hiding their divisions" by holding debates on weekends and nights of big sporting events.
"They're trying to hide whenever the Democrats debate. We're going to have 25 million watching the Republican debate because it's such a discussion of ideas and plans for the future," the Wyoming Republican said.
"I think the Democrats are trying to hide the divisions within the party, but the divisions are running very deep."