WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans returned to Capitol Hill Tuesday to confront an awkward new reality: Donald Trump is their presumptive presidential nominee, but instead of uniting behind him, leading figures like House Speaker Paul Ryan are withholding their support.
That highly unusual state of affairs is creating a tricky situation for Republicans in the House and Senate, some of whom fear Trump could prove a drag on their own re-election chances in a year when the GOP is fighting to hang onto its slim Senate majority.
GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Trump’s leading opponent before he dropped out last week after a disappointing loss in Indiana, made clear Tuesday he was in no hurry to endorse the mogul and reality TV star who defeated him.
“The voters in the primary seem to have made a choice and we’ll see what happens as the months go forward,” Cruz told conservative talk radio host Glenn Beck. That makes Cruz the latest of Trump’s onetime foes to refuse to take the traditional step of burying the hatchet and backing their party’s standard-bearer once primary season is over.
Voters were casting ballots Tuesday in West Virginia and Nebraska, and Cruz remained on the ballot. He went so far as to leave open the possibility of restarting his campaign if he should score a surprise win in Nebraska, while making clear he doesn’t anticipate that outcome.
“The reason we suspended the race last week is with Indiana’s loss I didn’t see a viable path to victory. If that changes we will certainly respond accordingly,” Cruz said before boarding a flight to return to the Capitol, where Senate Republicans were warily awaiting the return of a colleague who’s spent months denouncing them as the “Washington cartel.”
Indeed the only topic they seemed more eager to avoid was that of Trump himself.
“He’s our nominee and there’s no reason for me not to be happy about it,” asserted South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who is up for re-election. Asked if he could say he’s endorsing Trump, Scott replied: “I can say that that’s a ridiculous question. Obviously if I’m endorsing the nominee I’m endorsing the candidate, right?”
Yet the question might not be so ridiculous in an election year where the GOP has been set against itself, perhaps irrevocably, by a divisive billionaire who spent years as a registered Democrat and has managed to insult women, Hispanics, disabled people and others. Many leading Republicans can bring themselves to support Trump only reluctantly, if at all. And that posture is irritating to others in the party who insist that it’s time for the GOP to get behind Trump and start preparing for a likely contest against Democrat Hillary Clinton in November.
“They have to just kind of get it through their heads that he’s our nominee,” Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma said as lawmakers returned to Washington Monday from a weeklong recess that saw Trump effectively clinch the nomination.
Trump will meet Thursday with Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has offered his guarded support, and other GOP leaders in the House and Senate.
Ahead of the meeting, Ryan struck a conciliatory tone in interviews with home-state reporters Monday, while defending his stunning decision to refuse to back Trump.
Ryan denounced the idea of any Republican launching a third-party or independent candidacy to challenge Trump, telling the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel it “would be a disaster for our party.”
And Ryan said he’d step aside from the House speaker’s traditional role as chairman of the Republican National Convention if Trump wants him to, a scenario that Trump left open over the weekend. “He’s the nominee. I’ll do whatever he wants in respect to the convention,” Ryan said, insisting that the party must strive to unify, and Trump must lead the effort.
Trump himself shrugged off the need for unity.
“I think this is a time for unity. And if there’s not going to be unity, I think that’s OK, too,” Trump said on Fox Business Network. “I mean, I’ll go out and I think I’ll do very well. I think I’m going to win the race either way.”
But Ryan’s reluctance seemed to embolden others to withhold their support.
Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, one of the most endangered Senate Republicans, wrote an opinion piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer drawing back from his long-stated intent to back the GOP nominee.
“His vulgarity, particularly toward women, is appalling. His lack of appreciation for constitutional limits on executive powers is deeply concerning. … In short, I find his candidacy highly problematic,” Toomey wrote of Trump. “There could come a point at which the differences are so great as to be irreconcilable.”
Sen. Steve Daines of Montana said Monday of Trump: “I want to see him lead and unite the party and the nation,” but wouldn’t endorse him.
Even in the House, where Republicans command the largest majority in decades and are unlikely to lose control, vulnerable members are visibly nervous. Several newly elected lawmakers who could face difficulty in November, including Martha McSally of Arizona, Will Hurd of Texas and Barbara Comstock of Virginia, have told local publications they are not ready to back Trump.
“Donald Trump has a great deal of work to do to convince many Americans, including myself, that he’s prepared and able to lead this great country,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., another congressman from a closely divided district.
Ever confident, Trump announced that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former foe but now an enthusiastic supporter, would head his transition team as he heads for the White House if he wins the election. Another former opponent, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who’s been mentioned by Trump as a potential vice-presidential pick, issued a statement saying he wasn’t interested because Trump “will be best served by a running mate and by surrogates who fully embrace his campaign.”
Ben Carson is another former opponent who’s now backing Trump and positioning himself as an emissary; Ryan’s office confirmed that Carson has requested to meet with Ryan ahead of the Trump meeting, a move first reported in The Washington Post.