WASHINGTON – Roy Moore lunched with the Senate Republican establishment he has repeatedly derided.
The Alabama Senate candidate and former jurist joined Vice President Mike Pence and GOP senators at their weekly, closed-door policy luncheon on Tuesday. Republicans, who had mostly favored appointed Sen. Luther Strange, have endorsed Moore as they look ahead to the Dec. 12 special election to fill the seat held for years by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Emerging from the luncheon, Moore faced questions from reporters about past statements on religion and his criticism of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Moore has said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., should not be allowed to serve in Congress because he's a Muslim. Asked about those comments, Moore declined to comment, saying, "I'll address that later."
Moore's presence in the Senate came as Republicans repeatedly have defended one of President Donald Trump's judicial nominees, Amy Coney Barrett, who has faced questions about whether her Catholicism influences her legal opinion. GOP senators criticized Democrats for that line of questioning and insisted there is no religious test to hold office.
As Republicans have backed Moore, Ellison tweeted on Monday: "Do these folks know they've stood by a Senate candidate who thinks I shouldn't be able to serve in Congress, simply because of my faith?"
A few Republican senators have distanced themselves from Moore's comments.
"Anyone who says a Muslim shouldn't serve in Congress is applying a religious test. That's unconstitutional. That's not right," said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, has endorsed Moore. He said on Monday that just because he and Moore are both Republicans "doesn't mean you agree 100 percent with what some other office holder or candidate for office feels, so I would disagree with that statement" by Moore.
Moore has been removed from office twice, once for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from Alabama's judicial building and then suspended for insisting probate judges refuse same-sex couples marriage licenses.
McConnell and top Republicans had backed Strange in the September runoff, and a McConnell-aligned PAC invested some $9 million for his candidacy.
Moore used fundraising appeals to blast McConnell, saying "dirty tricks and schemes ... like turning out Democrats to vote for his crony Luther Strange in our Republican primary," and Moore in the Senate "means the END of Mitch McConnell's reign as Majority Leader."
Although Trump backed Strange, Moore easily won the September runoff with the help of former White House adviser Steve Bannon.
Moore told reporters on Tuesday that he spoke to McConnell and it "went well."