Congressional Republicans Grapple With Donald Trump, 2016 Campaign at Policy Retreat

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump points to the crowd while speaking at a rally on Jan. 12, 2016, in Cedar Falls, Iowa.PlayJae C. Hong/AP Photo
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Congressional Republicans juggled their 2016 agenda with the GOP presidential primary at a policy retreat today in Baltimore as the Republican presidential candidates prepared to take the stage at another primary debate in South Carolina.

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Beginning the year under the leadership of new House Speaker Paul Ryan, Republicans billed the three days of policy workshops as the beginning of “The Congress of Tomorrow.” But Hill Republicans are also contending with the fact that the GOP could end up with a general election candidate -- like Sen. Ted Cruz or Donald Trump -- who could reject any carefully laid plans for 2016.

Ryan, flanked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said he would support "whoever" is selected as the party's nominee, including Trump.

"It's the Republican primary voter who makes that decision," Ryan told reporters.

Asked how Republicans could unite around the anti-establishment candidacies of Trump or Cruz in the general election, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, expressed confidence in the primary process.

"Whoever gets the nomination will have gone through a very competitive process and actually prove themselves to the voters," he said.

Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, the Senate's third-ranked Republican, said Republicans in Congress should focus on what they can control.

"The only thing we can do is what we do here, and what we do as individual members of Congress," he said. "Hopefully, we’ll be able to sync up with them and their agenda, but we want to make sure our members have something to run on."

Thune said the most successful candidate will have to "tap into ... some of the frustration that’s being experienced by the American people.”

But he added that Americans will also respond to candidates who "appeal to their hopes," underscoring the delicate election-year balancing act facing Republicans.

McConnell and Ryan, as they promised support to Trump if he becomes the nominee, also praised South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's response to President Obama's State of the Union address. Haley said the party must not “follow the siren call of the angriest voices.”

“We think she did a great speech. I think what she’s ultimately trying to do is show how do we have a message that’s inspiring, hopeful and optimistic,” Ryan said.

Scalise and McCarthy were quick to point to the escalating primary fight between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, arguing that Democrats have their own presidential primary struggles.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid dared McConnell today to bring a vote on Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the United States, which Republican leaders on Capitol Hill have rejected.

“Since Republican leaders in the House and Senate have pledged loyalty to Trump, the obvious next step is to vote on his policies, including his unconstitutional plan to bar people from entering the United States based on their religion,” Reid said in a statement.

McConnell said in response that Republicans could force a vote on policies that Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders champion on which some Democrats might not want their vote recorded.

“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” McConnell, dressed unusually casually in jeans, said with a smile.