GOP senators caught in middle of 2016 chaos – and under pressure to take sides

Lunch used to be a “thing” for lawmakers in Washington.

You could cab downtown to The Palm for a “power” lunch of steak au poivre and fried onions. Slide out the side door of the Dirksen Senate Office Building and across the parking lot to the legendary Monocle for braised lamb chops.

But sometimes, if you’re a Republican senator, it’s simpler to just grab a bite with your GOP colleagues in the Mike Mansfield Room of the Capitol.

Yet even this is becoming a complicated media event thanks to the unpredictable presidential primary battle -- as reporters these days camp out in the Senate subway station, firing off a battery of questions to lunch-driven lawmakers about the apparent doom which supposedly looms for the Republican Party this year.

Donald Trump this. Ted Cruz that. Marco Rubio. Did someone say Kasich?

Major primaries in Ohio and Florida are on the horizon next week. The results could set the table for this campaign cycle. The House of Representatives isn’t in session this week. So every reporter in Washington worth their byline made a beeline for the Capitol to query senators about the presidential race.

The hand-operated train which runs to the Russell Senate Office Building pulls in. Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz., pile out. Reporters flock to McCain. Both are up for re-election this year. Burr, despite representing a swing state, somehow escapes the crew and hoofs it upstairs to the weekly GOP luncheon, practically incognito.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. – often a target for a press gaggle on intelligence and firearm issues – walks by with barely a notice.

Democrats aren’t important this week. Only Republicans.

This week’s reporter scrums in the Senate subway station were intense.

Some are starting to suggest that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, may be the only person who can short-circuit Donald Trump en route to the Republican nomination. And yet not a single GOP senator has endorsed their colleague. That phenomenon is practically unheard of in American politics.

“There was a rumor four senators were going to endorse Ted Cruz,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. “But that rumor was unfounded.”

Four senators. Zero senators. It doesn’t seem to matter much. Republican senators don’t like Ted Cruz – even if some grudgingly concede he may be the only person capable of defeating Trump. And not everyone is sure Cruz is better than Trump.

Collins believes Cruz needs a Dale Carnegie course.

“I’m not sure Ted has developed relationships in the Senate,” said Collins. “Some of his rhetoric toward the Republican leader has not been conducive.”

Last summer, Cruz raged on the floor about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., trade policy and an effort to renew the controversial Export-Import Bank.

“I cannot believe that [McConnell] would tell a flat-out lie,” steamed Cruz. “We now know that when the majority leader looks us in the eyes and makes an explicit commitment that he is willing to say things that he knows are false.”

Some Republicans – especially those in leadership or tenuous political positions – tried to take the high road with Cruz.

“Ted’s a smart guy,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune, R-S.D. “His tenure in the Senate has been him trying to be a disruptor.”

And it was that “disruption” which seems to have turned off many of his Senate colleagues.

“He was leading the government shutdown,” said Collins. “It was a disaster in every way.”

“Expectations were created that somehow we could win,” echoed Thune of the shutdown.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., faced a competitive primary a few weeks ago. Republicans pumped significant monetary and human resources into the state at the end to close the deal for Shelby. Colleague Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., is the only senator to endorse Donald Trump. Shelby wasn’t in much of a mood to talk shop Tuesday when a mob of reporters waited for him to disembark from the Senate trolley.

“I’m going to lunch right now,” said Shelby brusquely brushing past the throng.

Things were almost as hectic on Wednesday as senators cruised past reporters from the subway station en route to a midday procedural vote. Only, there was no formal lunch planned this time. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., is also a vulnerable GOPer this cycle who hails from a swing state. But Johnson didn’t feel accosted by reporters as he walked to one of the subways.

“I’m happy to answer questions,” said Johnson. “Or not answer, as the case may be.”

He chuckled.

Would Trump or Cruz take a pragmatic approach to governing?

“I’m praying,” replied Johnson.

Perhaps that means senators should say grace before lunch – regardless of where they decide to eat.

Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.