GOP leaders endorse Mitt Romney, seek party unity behind probable nominee

House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell both endorsed Mitt Romney for president on Tuesday, but some conservative GOP lawmakers remained less than enthusiastic for the presumptive Republican nominee.

Conservative House members urged Romney to reach out to them in the coming weeks, even as many of them said the passion driving Republicans in the 2012 election is not Romney himself but the man he wants to defeat, President Obama.

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The push came as Congress returned to Washington from a two-week recess during which Romney all but clinched the GOP nomination after his chief rival, former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), suspended his campaign. Both Boehner (R-Ohio) and McConnell (R-Ky.) recognized Romney’s victory Tuesday and formally endorsed his candidacy.

“It’s clear now that Mitt Romney is going to be our nominee,” Boehner told reporters after a morning House GOP conference meeting. “I think Mitt Romney has a set of economic policies that can put Americans back to work and contrast sharply with the failed economic policies of President Obama. And I will be proud to support Mitt Romney and do everything I can to help him win.”

Boehner’s top deputies, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) and Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), had previously endorsed Romney.

“I support Mitt Romney for president of the United States,” McConnell said in a separate appearance Tuesday afternoon.

The chairman of the House GOP’s campaign to keep the majority, Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas), told The Hill that congressional leaders had already begun coordinating with Romney’s team and would roll out those joint efforts as the campaign progresses. He said he was “not concerned” that a lack of enthusiasm for Romney among conservatives would render him a liability at the top of the ticket for Republican candidates.

“Mitt Romney as the nominee will enjoy much more support than he did in a competitive Republican primary,” Sessions said. 

Yet the reluctance of some in the party to fully embrace Romney was on display at a panel discussion that a dozen House conservatives held Tuesday afternoon in the Capitol. When The Hill asked if any of the members were excited about Romney as the nominee, no one initially spoke up. 

“I would say first, we’re excited about the opportunity to defeat Barack Obama more than anything,” the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), said. “I think Gov. Romney is the nominee, and you’re going to see conservatives unite behind him and do everything we can to help him win this November.”

Rep. Joe Walsh (Ill.) echoed Jordan: “The excitement, the passion in this race will come from getting Barack Obama out of the White House. Every day he’s in the White House, he’s destroying what makes this country great. I have no doubt that every conservative and movement person in this country is going to work their tails off to get [Romney] elected.”

At one point, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) cracked a joke at Romney’s expense, referencing his reputation for flip-flopping on issues.

“Let me just tell you: If you’re not sure about wanting to support Mitt Romney, whether you’re liberal, whether you’re very conservative, you ought to be excited, because he’s been on your side at one time or another,” Gohmert said, drawing laughter from the room.

The Texas congressman interjected later in the forum to clarify his support for Romney. “Just so I am not misunderstood,” Gohmert said, “I’m not as excited as I am desperate” to defeat Obama.

After Gohmert spoke, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) stepped in to defend Romney. 

“I’m very excited about this candidate,” he said, noting that he had initially endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry and had stayed neutral after Perry dropped out. “This is a candidate,” he said of Romney, “who is going to do what everybody at this table wants to do, which is repeal ObamaCare. He’s going to help us balance the budget sooner rather than later. This is what we’ve been waiting for.

“Face it,” Mulvaney said, “we got the best candidate that we could out of the process.

“I am excited about it, so I don’t want the narrative to be when we walk out of here that conservatives are not excited about Mitt Romney, because I don’t think it’s accurate.”

An organizer of the event, Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), said “it’s high time conservatives start getting excited,” but urged Romney to solicit the help of the freshman House members who surged into office on a wave of Tea Party support.

“He needs to reach out to every one of us who’s sitting at this table and to all the other conservative leaders throughout the United States, to make sure that he’s not just speaking to a few select groups, but that he’s speaking to the grass roots, that he’s speaking to all the people that were passionate in the 2010 election,” Labrador said. “Because that’s how he’s going to win, by getting that same excitement that all of us had behind our campaigns. And we can help him with that, but he needs to make sure that he reaches out to us.”

The lukewarm comments from some of the House’s most fervent conservatives underscore the challenge for Romney in rallying the Republican base behind his candidacy after a contentious primary. 

One lawmaker after another made clear that the driving force come November will not be their own party’s standard-bearer. 

“Listen, President Obama’s going to do all ‘the exciting’ in this election,” a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), told The Hill. “Republicans are very anxious to replace the president, so our base will be there, fully engaged.” 

The Oklahoma lawmaker did not endorse any of the GOP presidential hopefuls in the primary. 

“The Romney people are doing all the right things,” Cole said, noting a recent meeting they had with Tea Party activists. “He’s reaching out, consolidating the party behind him, but unifying Republicans in a contest against Barack Obama is about as simple a political task as anyone’s ever going to have.”

— Molly K. Hooper and Alexander Bolton contributed to this report.