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BALTIMORE — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellFive things to watch in round two of Trump confirmation fights This week: Confirmation fights dominate ahead of inauguration Juan Williams: Race, Obama and Trump MORE (R-Ky.) was asked whether his chamber would vote on Donald TrumpDonald TrumpGOP Chairman defends tax proposal after Trump criticism Schumer: Tom Price may have broken law with stock trade Dem rep blasts Trump: 'I don’t honor him, I don’t respect him' MORE’s plan to ban Muslims. House Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanGOP Chairman defends tax proposal after Trump criticism GOP group releases Spanish-language healthcare ad Week ahead: Trump's health pick takes the hot seat MORE (R-Wis.) was quizzed about South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s swipe at Trump during her State of the Union response.
And conservative columnist George Will joked to lawmakers that his closed-door breakfast panel was a “Trump-free zone,” sources said.
Congressional Republicans huddled here in Charm City’s Inner Harbor on Thursday to discuss how they would pass spending bills, ObamaCare and other policy matters, planting the seeds for what they described as a big, bold, conservative agenda in 2016.
But Trump, center stage at the GOP presidential debate in Charleston, S.C. on Thursday, still loomed large over the second annual joint House-Senate GOP retreat.
In public news conferences and private hallway discussions, GOP lawmakers were buzzing about the Republican presidential front-runner, reality TV star and real estate mogul — and how his possible nomination could jeopardize their ability to hold majorities in the two chambers.
“The consensus is that none of us know what’s going to happen next,” House GOP Policy Chairman Luke Messer (R-Ind.), a member of leadership, told The Hill.
“The result of that primary is in the back of all of our minds as we look at the political landscape in 2016. There is no question that the eventual nominee will have a big impact on the future of both the House and the Senate.”
Some talked about Trump’s recent attack suggesting his chief rival, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), may not be eligible for the presidency because he was born in Canada to an American mother.
The broadside came just as Cruz had begun to climb in the polls, pointing to a level of discipline and “political sophistication” by Trump, lawmakers said.
Others at the retreat were still buzzing about Trump’s public outburst over a microphone that malfunctioned during a rally in Florida this week.
“I’m told what he said is, ‘Don’t pay the sound company, don’t pay the bastard that set up this microphone,’ ” said Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas), who’s backing Cruz. “And we all cringed and we said, that’s not exactly something you want from the microphone of your elected officials.”
For Reps. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) and Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the GOP debate was a bigger priority than sticking around for the final day of the three-day retreat.
On Thursday afternoon, the pair of House Freedom Caucus leaders were spotted dragging their luggage through the lobby of the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront, hurrying to catch a flight to Charleston.
“We’re going to not only enjoy the process but also be there to help direct the focus to more of the House agenda,” Meadows told The Hill as he hailed a taxi for him, his wife and Mulvaney. “We think it’s important the House agenda is adopted by the presidential nominee whomever they are.”
The GOP retreat, dubbed the “Congress of Tomorrow 2016,” is intended to be a place where House and Senate Republicans can brainstorm ideas on things like an Obamacare replacement bill and how to get Congress back to a more orderly appropriations process.
Ryan said it is his hope that as GOP White House hopefuls duke it out in debates and on the campaign trail, Republicans on Capitol Hill can put forth ambitious proposals that later can be adopted by the eventual nominee.
To wait until the GOP convention in July might be too late to present an alternative platform to Democrats, Ryan said.
But Trump’s name was invoked at all four back-to-back leadership news conferences at the annual GOP gathering Thursday.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has called on Republicans to hold a vote on Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from the U.S. in the wake of recent terrorist attacks. But McConnell quickly dismissed that suggestion.
“Generally speaking,” the majority leader said, “I’ve tried to avoid turning the Senate into a [TV] studio for the presidential campaign.” But he said he may try to hold votes that put Democrats in tough positions.
At the same news conference, Ryan praised Haley’s GOP speech responding to President Obama’s State of the Union on Tuesday night, even though she’s taken heat for warning her party not to follow “the siren call of the angriest voices” — a not-so-subtle jab at Trump.
Ryan played an instrumental role in choosing Haley, the daughter of immigrants from India, to give the official GOP response. If Trump isn’t the nominee, she’s considered to be a top contender to be picked as a vice presidential running mate.
“We think she gave a great speech,” said Ryan, the GOP’s vice presidential nominee in 2012. “What she is ultimately trying to do is talk about how do we have a message that’s inspiring, that is inclusive, hopeful and optimistic, and that unites the country.
“We don’t want to have another president like this one that divides the country,” he added, “and that means listening to all voices.”
Despite trepidations about a Trump nomination, all but a few Republicans in Baltimore pledged to support him if gets the GOP nod at the presidential convention in Cleveland.
“In a presidential campaign, the rhetoric is kind of hot — that’s just inevitable,” said Senate GOP Conference Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), who organized the retreat with his House counterpart, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.). “We can’t control what the presidential candidates are going to say or going to do.
“What we want to do,” he added, “is make sure both House members and senators are well positioned going into this election year, talking about a positive agenda for the future of this country and talk about a record of accomplishment.”
Alexander Bolton contributed to this report.