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Congressional Republicans face an unavoidable issue: Trump

WASHINGTON >> Congressional Republicans guided by a complicated soup of political imperatives and inner moral voices struggled Tuesday to stake out positions on Donald Trump, their presumptive presidential nominee, in a remarkable buffet of disunity just two months before the Republican convention.

Some, like Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, simply went all in. “I’m for the nominee of the party. If it’s Donald Trump, I’ll support him wholeheartedly,” he said.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., strongly affirmed his position that Trump is untenable as a nominee, excoriating his views on Muslims and the First Amendment. “You can’t win a general election with his views,” Flake said.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, playing the coy card in his return to the Hill, stopped well short of an endorsement and said, “I trust the people” to decide on the nominee.

Others still, like Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican up for re-election in Ohio, simply walked fast enough to avoid answering the question.

As members of the House and Senate returned to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Republicans were greeted by swarms of reporters coming at them to ask: Would they support Trump? Had they spoken to the man? Was he destroying the party? Are they afraid he will cost them the Senate? Would they like to be the number two on the ticket? Did they know anyone who would?

Whether it was with reluctance, sadness, or barely concealed disgust, for some Republicans, a sense of resignation was setting in. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., spoke for many when he said, “Everybody knows down deep they will have to support the nominee.”

While lawmakers were on recess last week, Trump seized control of the Republican Party after winning the Indiana primary and pushing his last rivals out of the race. But other Republican leaders were not yet ceding their authority to him. Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., has said he was “not ready” to endorse him, expressing concerns about his tone and values.

Trump, who is scheduled to meet with Ryan and other congressional Republican leaders Thursday, returned the volley by refusing to rule out blocking Ryan from his role as chairman of the Republican convention.

On Tuesday, Ryan had little to say, but his communications staff did send out a note asking reporters to ignore Trump and pay more attention to a package of opiod bills about to hit the House floor.

For many Republicans, their core beliefs appeared to be taking a back seat to a desire to come together to defeat a Democrat in November. Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, a former Baptist minister, said he would support of Trump even as he cringed at some of the businessman’s stated views on social positions and history with women.

“There are a lot of unknowns about Donald Trump,” Lankford said. “But there are a lot of knowns about Hillary Clinton.”

Fervent free traders, like Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., a state that relies on trade, said they would stand with the man who has repeatedly denounced trade agreements.

“We don’t want a massive trade war,” Rounds said. “What we do want is good, solid trade policy.”

He added: “Mr. Trump has laid out what his goals are and now it’s a matter of finding common ground.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader — who disagrees with Trump on nearly every policy proclamation Trump has made — said, “He won the nomination the old-fashioned way — he got more votes.”

Trump’s failed Republican challengers represent an array of views, from stony-faced support to silence to outright rejection. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida reflected some of the hesitation about Trump.

“He obviously wasn’t my first choice because I was running for president,” he said on CNN. “He’s won the nomination. And now he deserves to go out and make his case to the American people. But I’m not going to sit here and become his chief critic now over the next six months because he deserves to go out to the American people and try to win.” He also suggested he would not be a good choice to campaign for Trump.

House Republican leaders are also fractured. While Ryan is withholding his support, the No. 2 House Republican, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, and the No. 3 Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, have backed Trump.

There are also divisions within states. In Nebraska, Sen. Ben Sasse has repeatedly said he cannot support Trump and has called for a third-party candidate to run. The senior senator from the state, Deb Fischer, said she would support Trump.

“I don’t agree with his strategy,” she said of Sasse. “I’m not going to hand this election to Hillary Clinton, and that’s what a third candidate would do.”

Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a senior member of the House Republican conference, said he expected a majority of his fellow Republicans in Congress to eventually line up behind Trump with varying levels of enthusiasm, even though his candidacy might jeopardize the party’s chances in some Senate and House races.

“You play this game with the cards you’re dealt,” Cole said. “The GOP primary electorate has dealt incumbents running for re-election Trump. In some districts, Trump will help. In some, he will hurt. In most, he will impact the margin rather than the outcome of the congressional race. Members know that and will react accordingly.”

But Cole said that congressional candidates are “far better prepared for the volatility and uncertainty of this election than they were in 2006 and 2008,” when the Democrats seized control of Congress and the presidency. “They are better organized, funded and positioned than they were, because most of them saw this coming. And most of them are battle-tested.”

That does not mean that some are not deeply disturbed.

“There are a lot of people in my state who have been asking me, ‘Is this who we are?’” Lankford said. “I say yes.”

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