BALTIMORE — The year ahead promises to be one of bold ideas in the House, if Speaker Paul Ryan gets his way, with lawmakers debating sweeping initiatives on taxes, health care and foreign policy.
In the Senate, the focus will be on processing the 12 annual spending bills to fund government — a project Majority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged Thursday "is not going to titillate the public."
As congressional Republicans met in Baltimore for their annual issues retreat, the divergence between the two congressional majorities in an unpredictable election year was on display.
Ryan, R-Wis., who's in his third month as speaker, is determined to make his chamber a sounding board of ideas. He doesn't expect them to become law or even necessarily pass the House, but he hopes to put forward a program that can be adopted by the eventual GOP presidential nominee, including a long-promised but never-delivered Republican alternative to President Barack Obama's health care law.
"It's important for us to offer a positive, solutions-oriented approach and agenda to the American people so that they can choose," Ryan told reporters at a Baltimore hotel where the retreat was taking place.
McConnell and other Senate leaders don't disagree and in fact applaud Ryan's program. But they say the House, with its ability to move quickly at the whims of the majority, is better suited to advance such a program than the slower-moving Senate, where minority Democrats can throw up countless roadblocks along the way.
"The House is just simply more nimble and more able to control its agenda and move its agenda than the Senate," said Senate Whip John Cornyn of Texas. "The House is in a better position, my own view, to take the lead on that agenda and to demonstrate the solutions that we have."
It's also a stylistic difference between Ryan, 45, a fresh young leader and self-described policy wonk, and McConnell, 73, a cautious pragmatist deeply schooled in the limits of the legislative process.
Another major factor: GOP control of the House is secure and all but certain to be renewed in November, no matter whom Republicans pick as their presidential nominee.
But the Senate is at risk of turning over to Democratic control — and indeed, some Republicans view that outcome as all but guaranteed if Donald Trump or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz becomes the presidential nominee. McConnell is laser-focused on protecting vulnerable Republican incumbents in Ohio, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Illinois, and has made clear that he will only take up pieces of the House agenda insofar as it helps those lawmakers.
Cruz was not present in Baltimore. Nor was Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, another Senate GOP presidential candidate. They were participating in a debate Thursday night in South Carolina.
But the presidential race loomed large at the retreat, as lawmakers privately debated what impact the nomination of Trump or Cruz, the two top-polling candidates, would have on their own fortunes given their divisive rhetoric directed at immigrants and others. Publicly they parried questions on the issue as Ryan and others pledged to unite around the eventual nominee.
"We're going to support whoever the nominee is. You know why? Because it's the Republican primary voter who makes that decision. And that's who we respect," Ryan said.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., trying to stir up the issue further, released a statement suggesting that since congressional Republicans "have pledged loyalty to Trump" they should schedule votes on his proposals — including his plan, condemned by Ryan and McConnell, to bar Muslims from entering the U.S.
McConnell retorted in response that's "what's good for the goose is good for the gander" and perhaps Republicans would offer votes Democrats wouldn't like related to their presidential candidates.
Polling shown to House members at an early gathering suggested Cruz could be even more problematic than Trump for down-ballot candidates.
But Republicans argued that while they can't control the outcome of the presidential primary, the best way to protect their political fortunes, individually and as a party, is to advance issues showing what they stand for.
There's no guarantee House Republicans will ever be able to unite around an alternative to Obama's health care law or a military force authorization against Islamic State militants, and McConnell has shown little interest in either issue.
Still, the House approach represents "the blueprint for where we would go with a Republican president in 2017, even though we may not be able to get those through the Senate in 2016," said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.