BALTIMORE—As Democrats threatened to use the senate floor this year to attack the GOP's presidential candidates, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned that those tactics can go both ways.
McConnell, asked about a statement by Minority Leader Harry Reid threatening to force votes on Donald Trump’s policies, said Thursday that should Democrats force votes to embarrass his party's candidates for president, they could expect votes targeting former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders in return.
“Generally speaking, I’ve tried to avoid turning the Senate into a studio for the presidential campaign, but it’s worth noting that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander," McConnell told reporters, while huddling with fellow Republican lawmakers at a three-day retreat in Baltimore. “And so, they could expect amendments that they may not like related to the Sanders or the Clinton campaign.”
“But as a general rule,” McConnell added Thursday, “what I’ve tried to ask the Senate to do is let the presidential candidates run their race and let’s try to do the people’s business.”
The fight is the inevitable result of McConnell's commitment to an open process, in which members will be free to offer their own amendments, as he attempts to pass 12 appropriations bills through Congress for the first time since 1994.
Reid said in a statement tied to the GOP’s Baltimore retreat Thursday that since Republican leaders in the House and Senate have said they will support the eventual nominee, Democrats will use the open amendment process to force votes on the policies of current front-runner Trump, “including his unconstitutional plan to bar people from entering the United States based on their religion.”
“These votes will give all senators a chance to take a stand on the policy issues dominating the public debate—and Republicans a chance to stand with the frontrunner for their nomination,” Reid said in the statement.
Republicans in Baltimore, including members of leadership, were reluctant to criticize Trump on Thursday, even in the wake of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s pointed attacks at the frontrunner in her response to the State of the Union speech. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who noted that both he and McConnell played a role in choosing Haley to give the response, called her response “a great speech,” noting that going into 2016 Republicans hope to “have a message that’s inspiring, that’s inclusive, hopeful, optimistic and unites the country,” but did not address Trump specifically. McConnell echoed Ryan’s remarks, urging that the next Republican nominee for president should echo the cheerfulness and “optimism” of Ronald Reagan.
“We don’t want another president, like this one, that divides the country,” Ryan said.
When asked if House Republicans would support the eventual nominee for president, even if it is Trump, Ryan responded with an unequivocal “yes.”
“We’re going to support whoever our nominee is. You know why?” Ryan said. “Because it’s the Republican primary voter that makes that decision and that’s who we respect.”
Neither Clinton or Sanders has proposed anything as inflammatory as Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the country. But McConnell could still use Clinton’s and Sanders’s proposals—or at least Republicans’ interpretation of them—to set up tough votes for Democrats.
For instance, Clinton’s proposal to reinstate a ban on assault weapons would likely see some Democratic defections, while Sanders’s proposals to tax carbon dioxide and bar any new oil-and-gas drilling leases on federal lands and waters would split the Democratic caucus.
Ben Geman contributed to this article
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