Senate GOP leaders dodge questions on Romney's '47 percent' remarks

Senate Republican leaders on Wednesday didn’t answer questions in front of TV cameras about Mitt Romney’s controversial “47 percent” remarks.

After their weekly caucus lunch, the GOP lawmakers faced the Capitol Hill media for the first time since the GOP presidential nominee’s comments were leaked earlier this week. 

In a departure from standard operating procedure, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made brief remarks about inaction in the upper chamber and then departed without taking questions from the press. 

McConnell congratulated Congressional Gold Medal recipient Aung San Suu Kyi before turning the presser over to his deputy, Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), and others. 

A senior GOP aide noted that McConnell needed to leave for a ceremony honoring the Burmese opposition leader.

Politically vulnerable senators addressed the Romney controversy head on. 

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who is in a tight race with Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), said on Wednesday that he has a “very different view of the world” than that which Romney evinced at a private fundraiser.

ADVERTISEMENT
“I have five brothers and sisters. My father was an auto mechanic; my mother was a school cook,” Heller told reporters outside the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon. “I have a very different view of the world and as a United States senator I think I represent everybody. And every vote is important. Every vote is important in this race. I don’t write off anything.”

Other Republicans in competitive contests, such as Sen. Scott Brown (Mass.), have distanced themselves from Romney’s comments.

Kyl, meanwhile, bemoaned the consequences should Congress fail to address the impending “fiscal cliff” of spending cuts and tax hikes, and then GOP Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.), GOP Policy Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.) and GOP Conference Vice Chairman Roy Blunt (Mo.) each made statements on various issues, but did not mention the presidential race.

The Republican press conference followed the Democratic weekly media availability with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The Nevada Democrat ripped Romney for being “out of touch,” adding, “We have a long line of [Republican Senate candidates] who are running from Romney, as if the Olympics were still on.” 

Kyl wrapped up the press conference with a brief wave to the media, indicating the GOP leaders would not take questions. 

Their decision not to field queries on camera was an unusual departure from normal practice.

Reid, meanwhile, answered about a half-dozen questions during his time in front of the cameras.

Reporters swarmed the fleeing quartet of GOP senators to press them on Romney’s remarks and whether the matter was discussed during their 90-minute lunch.

Asked if Republican senators are concerned about Romney’s remarks, or if the legislators had discussed the matter, Blunt wouldn’t say.

“Whether there was discussion at the lunch or not, I wouldn’t want to say,” Blunt said, “just because I really don’t think we ought to talk about what was discussed at the lunch.”

He proceeded to say, however, that he does not think the matter “is of great concern to members of the Senate. It could have been better said, as Gov. Romney himself said.”

Pressed on whether the controversy would hamper Republican Senate candidates, Thune told reporters they have to “do what they need to do to win.” He noted that a lot of Senate races are close and that it is up to individual candidates to express their message to voters. 

Romney said in the remarks, captured covertly on video, that almost half the country is “dependent on government” and believes the government “has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you name it.” He also said that 47 percent will “vote for the president no matter what.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) indicated to The Hill that the matter was not discussed at the GOP lunch. Other members said it was tackled, but not extensively. 

— Bob Cusack, Cameron Joseph and Alexander Bolton contributed.