BALTIMORE — Congressional Republicans at their annual retreat this week said they'd work with whoever wins the GOP nomination, but rejected the "Establishment" label front-runners Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz have given them.
"I'm personally very offended to be called the Establishment," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the chair of the Senate GOP Conference.
"We understand that politics are politics and it's very popular [label] right now. There is a good amount of the electorate, which I totally get, that is frustrated with Washington generally," Thune said. "I think that is what has fueled the rise of some of our presidential candidates on the Republican side as well as on the Democratic side."
Republicans are cobbling together a "common vision for America" at the two-day event, hoping to present an agenda this year that will not only attract enough voters to maintain majorities in the House and Senate, but also win back the White House from the Democrats. They plan to address national security, economic growth, welfare reform and replacing Obamacare.
But Thune's comments indicate the GOP message may be overshadowed this year by the presidential race and the popular candidacies of Trump and Cruz, who have climbed in the polls in part by dumping criticism on Washington lawmakers, who Cruz gleefully refers to as the "cartel."
Republicans acknowledged the divide in a Thursday morning meeting with reporters at the Baltimore retreat, but rejected the idea that Congress can't eventually unite with the GOP candidate, even if it's Trump's or Cruz's name on the ticket.
"Part of why we are here today is that we are a broad, diverse people and we welcome the competition of ideas," said House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.
Rodgers said members would be addressing the "frustration across the country" by examining how Congress can assert its power in response to President Obama's use of executive authority.
"The power of the purse, how we restore the rightful role of elected representatives and the people in the decision-making process, is on the forefront of our minds," Rodgers said.
Thune said Congress will work on an agenda that is independent of the GOP nominee, at least for now.
"What happens above us on the presidential ballot we really can't control," Thune said. "What we want to do is articulate a clear, positive vision and an agenda for this country and the future. At some point, when we have a nominee, hopefully we'll be able to synch up with them but we want to make sure our members have something they can talk about when they go out and encourage voters to give them another opportunity to represent them."