(CNN) — House Republicans had hoped to use their annual retreat to get on the same page about upcoming policy battles and devise a strategy to preserve their fragile majority.
Instead, they find themselves playing defense for former President Donald Trump.
While most Republicans had hoped to steer clear of any presidential politics — despite being in Florida, home to two major potential GOP rivals in 2024 — Trump’s announcement over the weekend that he expects to be imminently arrested has put him back in the center of the conversation and forced Republicans to publicly rally to his side. Even some GOP lawmakers who have called for the party to move on from Trump have lined up to offer their full-throated defense of the ex-president, attacking the Manhattan District Attorney’s office that is investigating Trump as a political witch hunt.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy, echoing calls from inside his conference, has instructed GOP-led committees to investigate whether the Manhattan DA used federal funds to probe a payment made by Trump’s then-personal attorney Michael Cohen to adult film star Stormy Daniels days before the 2016 presidential election.
McCarthy said Sunday that he already talked to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, a Republican from Ohio, about an investigation into the matter, and hinted that there could be more developments on that front soon.
“Remember, we also have a select committee on the weaponization of government, this applies directly to that. I think you’ll see actions from them,” McCarthy told reporters at a news conference kicking off their three-day policy retreat.
But Republicans weren’t in complete lockstep with Trump. McCarthy carefully broke with Trump’s calls to protest and “take our nation back” if he is arrested, which has sparked concerns of political violence reminiscent of the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
“I don’t think people should protest this, no,” McCarthy said. But he added: “You may misinterpret when President Trump talks … he is not talking in a harmful way, and nobody should. Nobody should harm one another … We want calmness.”
Firebrand Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, however, offered a different take.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with calling for protests,” she told reporters after the news conference on Sunday. “Americans have the right to assemble and the right to protest. And that’s an important constitutional right. And he doesn’t have to say ‘peaceful’ for it to mean peaceful. Of course he means peaceful.”
A familiar GOP predicament
The latest Trump drama is once again threatening to divide the GOP and overshadow their carefully-laid messaging plans — a familiar predicament for Republicans who served in Congress while Trump was in office and spent years being forced to answer for his regular controversies. Republican leaders who had hoped to focus on their legislative agenda during the first news conference of their policy retreat instead fielded numerous questions from reporters about Trump and the Manhattan DA’s investigation.
Asked whether he thinks it would be appropriate for Trump to run for president if he is ultimately convicted, McCarthy said: “He has a constitutional right to run.”
Multiple Republican lawmakers — including House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik — have endorsed Trump, while at least two of his staunch supporters have thrown their weight behind other candidates in the race: South Carolina Rep. Ralph Norman is backing former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and Rep. Chip Roy of Texas is supporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Most GOP lawmakers, however, have been reluctant to pick sides just yet, waiting to see how the field develops. Even McCarthy, who credited his speakership to Trump, has yet to make his preference known.
“I could endorse in the primary, but I haven’t endorsed,” he told reporters on Friday. When pressed on if he will do so, he again repeated: “I could endorse but I haven’t.”
‘Can we keep the era of good feelings going?’
Aside from a potentially bruising GOP primary contest, House Republicans have other major internal battles on the horizon. They are about to dive into some of the most complicated and divisive policy fights of their razor-thin majority, including lifting the nation’s borrowing limit, funding the government, reauthorizing federal food stamp programs and deciding whether to continue aid for Ukraine.
Part of their goal during their annual retreat is to just get the conference in sync ahead of these looming debates.
“The value of something like this is, can we keep the era of good feelings going within the Republican conference?” said Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, who chairs the centrist-leaning Main Street Caucus. “This is gonna be a nice opportunity for us to just get in the same room, have a couple hundred of us breathe the same air, and remind ourselves that we have more in common than we have apart.”
While the GOP has notched a handful of victories since taking over the House, including a resolution to overturn a DC crime bill, most of their bills have been messaging endeavors thus far. And even measures that were thought to be low-hanging fruit, like a border security plan, have proved more challenging than expected in their slim majority.
House Republicans know their biggest challenges lie ahead.
“The question is really going to be as we get into phase two,” GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, who co-leads a bipartisan caucus with Democrats, told CNN. “The real test is going to be the must-pass pieces of legislation.”
The GOP’s investigations on a wide array of subjects, including Hunter Biden’s business deals and the treatment of January 6 defendants, have caused some consternation among the party’s moderates. And some were also skeptical about the need for a congressional response to a potential Trump indictment.
“I’m going to wait until I hear more facts and read the indictment itself,” Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican who represents a district President Joe Biden won, told CNN. “I have faith in our legal system. If these charges are political bogus stuff, and they may be, it will become clear enough soon.”
GOP leaders are nonetheless expressing confidence in their ability to stay united.
“House Republicans are working as a team,” House GOP Whip Tom Emmer of Minnesota said at the Orlando news conference. “Because that’s what the American people elected us to do.”
Bacon framed the stakes of the legislative fights with Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to come by saying, “We need to be the governing party that voters trust. This will determine 2024 results. This means we can’t cave to Biden’s and Schumer’s demands, but we can’t refuse to find consensus and make agreements on must pass legislation.”
GOP Rep. Tim Burchett of Tennessee, who told CNN he is willing to shut down the government if conservatives do not get what they are calling for pertaining to the debt ceiling, reflected on how House Republicans could learn from their Democratic counterparts in presenting a unified front.
“They’re better than us at the carrot and the stick. If they get in line, they get the carrot. If they don’t, they get the stick. They all tout the unity thing. Maybe that’s one of our weaknesses,” he told CNN.
The must-pass pieces of legislation expose not only the fault lines of a slim majority, but also underscore the hurdles House Republicans face in cementing their transition from a nay-saying minority to a governing majority.
“Campaigning is for dividing. Governing is for uniting,” GOP Rep. Tony Gonzales of Texas told CNN, adding that sentiment must extend beyond House Republicans to Biden and Senate Democrats.
“I’d say in general, not everybody comes up here to be serious legislators. A lot of people come up here for fame and fortune. I spent 20 years in the military. I’m focused on being a serious legislator,” he added.
Fitzpatrick told CNN, “It’s definitely an adjustment,” when describing the House Republicans’ transition from minority to majority, particularly for those members who have not served in the majority before. But Fitzpatrick pointed to the fact that the messaging bills that Republicans have brought to the floor so far have passed almost unanimously.
Debt ceiling poses biggest challenge ahead
Some of the House GOP’s biggest hurdles will come in trying to write a budget blueprint, which they hope will kick off negotiations over the raising debt ceiling, where Republicans are demanding steep spending cuts.
Further complicating the GOP’s goal to balance the budget and claw back federal spending, Republican leaders — egged on by Trump — have vowed not to touch Social Security and Medicare.
Norman acknowledged how difficult it is going to be to coalesce around a framework that the entire conference can agree on. Before leaving Washington, the far-right House Freedom Caucus laid out their own hardline spending demands in the debt ceiling fight.
“I don’t expect to get 218 on the first blush. What we present, there’s gonna be some gnashing of teeth,” he told CNN. “Every dollar up here has an advocate.”
Burchett told CNN he stands behind the proposals being pushed by the Freedom Caucus.
“It seems like every time the conservatives are the only ones that compromise. And we are just going to have to say no compromise,” he told CNN, adding he is willing to shut down the government on this issue. “I did it under Trump, and I’ll sure as heck do it under Biden.”
McCarthy said he thought it was “productive” for his members to outline “ideas” for the budget, and dismissed the idea that anyone was drawing red lines.
Asked about Biden’s insistence that House Republicans show them their budget before negotiations can continue, McCarthy replied, “Why do we have to have a budget out to talk about the debt ceiling? We’re not passing the budget, we’re doing a debt ceiling.”
He added that he has told the president, “We’re not going to raise taxes, and we’re not going to pass a clean debt ceiling, but everything else is up for negotiation.”
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