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Congressional Republicans Fear Being Overshadowed By Election Politics


Republicans in Congress have gotten together in Baltimore this week for their annual retreat. The three-day ritual is a time when members hash out plans for the year. NPR's Ailsa Chang reports that congressional Republicans, though, are worried about their agendas getting trumped during this raucous presidential campaign.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: The annual Republican retreat - there haven't been any trust falls or ropes courses, but here, in the spirit of laid-back bonding, members have traded in their suits and ties for sweaters - like this cozy green number Pennsylvania's Charlie Dent has on.


CHANG: Oh, that was actually the instruction.

DENT: Well, I don't know if it was, but I don't bring ties to retreats. I don't do that. I don't wear them here. It's - I'm against it. (Laughter) I'm against ties at retreats.

CHANG: The Republicans say that does not mean this retreat is about kicking back because there's one very pressing question House Speaker Paul Ryan wants them to try to answer this week.


PAUL RYAN: How do we have a message that's inspiring, that's inclusive, hopeful, optimistic and that unites the country.

CHANG: The implication being that kind of message isn't exactly dominating the presidential race right now. Republicans in Congress get visibly uncomfortable when directly asked, how would they sync up with a candidate like Donald Trump if he becomes the Republican nominee for president?

JOHN THUNE: Well, we're a big and diverse party (laughter) - a very entrepreneurial party, lots of ideas out there.

CHANG: Senator John Thune of South Dakota says instead of worrying about who the Republican nominee will be, what his colleagues need to be focused on is crafting their own agenda.

THUNE: I think there are probably going to be areas where we'll find some common ground with that agenda, but 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 a Republican majority in the United States in Congress.

CHANG: And making that case will mean affirmatively setting forth ideas - becoming a party not of opposition but of proposition. The boldest plan so far - House Republican leadership will unveil a replacement for the Affordable Care Act for the first time, after voting dozens of times to repeal it. House Republican Dave Brat of Virginia says there's a reason Republicans waited five years to do this.

DAVE BRAT: The thing that's different now is we have the probability of a Republican president. So now is the time when you make a real statement. You say - and you give the next president a hint.

CHANG: And while Republican lawmakers try to find a voice distinct from the presidential race, Democrats are only too eager to lump their GOP colleagues with Trump. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid wants to see his chamber vote on Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., to which Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says, bring it on.


MITCH MCCONNELL: Generally speaking, I've tried to avoid turning the Senate into a studio for the presidential campaign. But it's worth noting that's what good for the goose is good for the gander. And so you could expect amendments that they might not like related to the Sanders or Clinton campaign.

CHANG: So despite trying really hard not to get upstaged by the presidential race, everyone knows Congress will be one of the biggest stages for the 2016 contest. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, Baltimore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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