BALTIMORE — Congressional Republicans are busy setting an agenda for the year ahead with the goal of protecting their own political fortunes no matter what happens in the presidential campaign.
But like it or not, success depends in large part on who emerges as their party's nominee, and that's something that's largely beyond their control.
As Republicans met in Baltimore this week for their annual issues retreat, the 2016 presidential election was not officially on the agenda but was the topic of much discussion.
"Our presidential candidates are out there beating each other up at the moment, and that's going to solve itself at some point during the process," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters. "In the meantime, let me also make a point that we weren't sent here to do nothing."
None of the GOP contenders was present, as Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida were in South Carolina for a debate. And so Republicans tried to avoid saying publicly what many believe privately: that Cruz or Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, with their divisive rhetoric, could prove politically disastrous for the GOP, perhaps even costing them control of the Senate.
"We're going to support whoever the nominee is," insisted House Speaker Paul Ryan. "You know why? Because it's the Republican primary voter who makes that decision. And that's who we respect."
The focus at the retreat was on something all lawmakers appeared to agree on: producing bold policy solutions of their own. This could become a program adopted by their nominee and enacted into law next year — or at least help insulate individual Republican lawmakers running for re-election by providing them with their own agenda apart from their presidential nominee.
"We've made it clear we're going to be aggressive in 2016," said House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La. "And we're also going to be laying out a bold vision of what it would look like if you had a Republican president that worked with a Congress that was actually willing to tackle tough issues."
In the House, under the leadership of Ryan in his third month as speaker, that means an aggressive agenda tackling big issues including tax reform, a replacement for President Barack Obama's health care law and a military force authorization against the Islamic State group. Ryan has made clear, however, that he doesn't expect any of those issues to actually make it to Obama's desk, and there's no guarantee House Republicans themselves will even unite around solutions.
In the unwieldy and slower-moving Senate, the focus will be on processing the 12 annual spending bills to fund government — a project McConnell acknowledged Thursday "is not going to titillate the public."
One factor in the difference between the chambers' divergent approaches: GOP control of the House is secure and all but certain to be renewed in November, no matter whom Republicans pick as their presidential nominee. But the Senate is at risk of turning back to Democratic control.
McConnell is laser-focused on protecting vulnerable Republican incumbents in Ohio, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Illinois, and has made clear that he will only take up pieces of the House agenda insofar as it helps those lawmakers.
Still, the House approach represents "the blueprint for where we would go with a Republican president in 2017, even though we may not be able to get those through the Senate in 2016," said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.