Calling climate change "bullshit" and seeking to abolish U.S. EPA, Donald Trump is stoking populist passions and leading the race for the Republican presidential nomination, including yesterday’s near sweep of the Super Tuesday primaries.
But on Capitol Hill, Republicans have been far less eager to hop on board the bombastic billionaire’s bandwagon, although most say they eventually could. They are also raising serious questions as to whether Trump’s bold proposals on energy and environmental issues could be implemented if he won the White House.
"Everything I thought I knew about politics is out the window," said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) about the rise of the real estate mogul.
Cornyn said yesterday that it was too soon to say who would eventually win the nomination. But he added, "I hope it’s somebody who can strengthen the ticket, who can unify the party, who can help us maintain the majority in the Senate."
Many House and Senate Republicans interviewed for this story were eager to tout other candidates, but most conceded that they and their party would eventually get behind Trump if he’s the choice of primary voters.
No other Republican in Congress has gone as far as Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who this week called for fielding a third option if Trump is the GOP standard-bearer.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has been reluctant to wade into the presidential race but said yesterday, "If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games. They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry."
His remarks were squarely aimed at Trump, who over the weekend was slow to disavow the Ku Klux Klan.
Asked about Ryan’s remarks at a news conference last night, Trump replied, "Paul Ryan — I don’t know him well, but I’m sure I’m going to get along great with him. If I don’t, he’s going to have to pay a big price."
Republicans in both chambers have urged candidates on the ballot this fall to find their own messages regardless of who is at the top of the ticket. It’s a sign they are concerned about the impact Trump may have on down-ballot races.
Democratic operatives are eager to try to link vulnerable GOP senators and House members to Trump. In a statement last night, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokeswoman Sadie Weiner faulted Republicans for failing to confront Trump’s "toxic rhetoric."
"With candidates as weak-willed as those running with Donald Trump, there’s no strategy that can salvage Republican down-ballot campaigns," she said.
For his part, Ryan has launched a series of committee-led task forces in the House to come up with a legislative agenda Republicans can run on (see related story). "With so much at stake this fall, we need to unite conservatives around a bold agenda so that we can give the country a clear choice," Ryan said.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said he thinks there will be "separation on issues" from whoever the GOP nominee is. But, the senator added, he hopes the party will ultimately come together to focus on its top priority — winning the White House.
So far, a handful of congressional lawmakers have endorsed Trump: Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions and Reps. Chris Collins of New York, Duncan Hunter of California and Tom Marino of Pennsylvania. Tennessee Rep. Scott DesJarlais told an interviewer that he voted for Trump in yesterday’s primary.
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the first senator to endorse Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for president, is also not a fan of Trump. He cites polls showing Rubio has the best shot at beating likely Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton, while Trump is the least likely.
In the end, though, Inhofe said he would back his party’s pick over any Democrat.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a noted political strategist who has led the National Republican Campaign Committee in the past, said candidates rise and fall on the strength of their own campaigns. He also predicted most Republicans would find a way to rally around Trump if he wins the nomination.
"If you don’t think politicians are pretty adroit at this, just look at the [New Jersey Gov. Chris] Christie endorsement of Trump," said Cole, who has not endorsed a candidate.
Trump has made a string of provocative statements on environmental and energy issues throughout the campaign, but in most cases they have lacked policy specifics.
On climate change, Trump has called claims of man-made warming a "hoax," a "canard," "nonexistent" and "mystical." He blames recent global warming on cyclical weather patterns and says efforts to curb it give the Chinese an unfair advantage over U.S. manufacturers (ClimateWire, Feb. 29).
As for EPA, Trump has been a regular basher on the campaign trail. He likes to joke that the agency’s restrictions make it harder for him to wash his hair and use aerosol spray to keep his famous mane coiffed (Greenwire, Feb. 29).
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a leading House moderate who backs Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the presidential contest, said he, like many in the GOP, wants changes at EPA. But, Dent said, the focus should be on practical reforms like having more cost-benefit analyses in rules, not long-shot calls for eliminating the agency.
Trump "does not do nuance well," said Dent, who said he doesn’t know if he will support the businessman if he wins the nomination.
Cole, a senior appropriator who has seen annual attempts to gut EPA fall short in spending bills, agrees that abolishing the regulatory agency would not be realistic. "You hear a lot of discussion about getting rid of it. Is it likely? No. But can it be run more different and effectively? Yes," he added.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of the EPW Committee, said neither party benefits from Trump’s bashing of environmental protections. "All of that works against what most Americans believe in," he said.
One of Trump’s most popular applause lines has been that he would "bomb the shit" out of the Islamic State group’s oil fields in the Middle East to cut off the main source of revenue for the terrorist group. He said the United States could then have energy giant Exxon Mobil Corp. rebuild the oil infrastructure and perhaps tap into new revenues.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), the party’s 2008 nominee, scoffed at the proposal.
"I don’t pay any attention, frankly, to the things he says. They are just not rational. Bomb the ‘s’ out of them — that’s just not serious," said McCain, who has nevertheless said he will back whomever the GOP nominates.
House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said he’s backing Rubio because the Sunshine State lawmaker understands the nuance of Western land issues.
Indeed, Trump has been a supporter of eminent domain, saying it’s a necessity for doing business, while Bishop has moved legislation through his committee that would ban the federal use of eminent domain for electricity projects (E&E Daily, Oct. 26, 2015).
Bishop said he does not know if he would eventually support Trump, joking that he’s "uncomfortable with people more vitriolic than I am."
He added, "There’s a lot of time left; I may run. I have better hair and a better tan."
Reporters Hannah Hess and Geof Koss contributed.