Washington (CNN)Facing unrest over Donald Trump's rhetoric, Republican leaders are eager to seize control of the GOP away from their party's standard-bearer, with the unveiling of Speaker Paul Ryan's agenda this week and Senate Republicans insisting that the businessman won't change key tenets of the GOP platform.
Hill GOP looks to steer agenda away from Trump
The growing fear within the GOP is that Trump's candidacy will tear away the core coalition built by Ronald Reagan, who pieced together social conservatives, defense hawks and free market backers to help him win two terms in the White House. And they worry that his provocative statements -- the latest over the Mexican heritage of a federal judge overseeing a Trump University lawsuit -- will undermine the GOP with key voting blocs critical in swing states.
"I think they were racially toxic," said Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, said of Trump's comments about U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel. "Obviously his comments were in line with his primary language, which is not in our best interest either."
Top Republicans on Capitol Hill want to show that their party will still stand for bedrock principles of conservatism regardless of Trump's rhetoric and positions -- and plan to make that case directly to voters. Ryan plans to push an agenda starting this week on issues ranging from addressing poverty to health care, while McConnell is insisting that the Trump should not alter the long-standing platform at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
"We are the party of Lincoln," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. "I don't think Donald Trump is going to change that."
Collins has not yet endorsed Trump and said it was "too soon" to say if she would vote for a third-party candidate.
"I would hope at this stage of the campaign that Donald Trump would turn a new page, start acting presidential, stop with the personal insults and begin articulating what his vision for America is," she said.
Still, it's a tall order for Republicans on Capitol Hill to distance themselves completely for Trump, given that many have endorsed their party's presumptive nominee and that their fortunes could depend on how well he does against the Democrats' expected candidate, Hillary Clinton.
Moreover, many need Trump supporters to come out to the polls in November, so are were willing to completely abandon him despite his condemnation of an American-born judge he says can't rule fairly because of he's "a Mexican."
Plus, Trump can quickly seize control of the national narrative and overshadow anything his colleagues are doing on Capitol Hill with as little as a 140-character tweet.
As they returned to Washington from a week-long recess, many Senate Republicans were unhappy with Trump's comments about the judge.
Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said Monday that he's backing Trump over Clinton because "the last thing we need is another dreadful Obama third term."
But he added: "Unfortunately, I think Mr. Trump said things that he should have not said, but I'm not going to comment about everything he says or doesn't say, or we'd never get our work done here."
Emerging from a high-level meeting in McConnell's office Monday evening, Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, the No. 3 in GOP leadership, said that Trump is "going to have to adapt."
"It's never good," Thune said Monday. "We have a great agenda and lots of things to talk about. And so if you're spending all your time addressing what your nominee's latest statements are then it's not a good place to be. We'd rather not be there."
On Tuesday, Ryan will try to steer the conversation away from Trump by touting the party's positions on addressing poverty, in a low-income neighborhood in Washington.
After a month of hand-wringing over Trump, Ryan eventually got behind Trump last week saying that the two agreed on basic conservative principles on governing. Yet the day after he made his support official -- which took weeks of private talks and staff negotiations -- Ryan distanced himself from Trump over the businessman's Curiel comments, saying, "It's reasoning I don't relate to."
The fallout from this latest controversy is threatening to overshadow the project Ryan has made a centerpiece of his speakership -- his policy agenda that he hopes will be a platform for House Republicans to campaign as they try to maintain their majority. The speaker repeatedly stressed in recent months there's a limit to what he can control in the 2016 debate, but he believes his party has to explain what they would do if voters give them the White House in November.
But as House GOP leaders they try to change the subject to their platform they are still being pressed to explain how they can back a nominee who is playing the kind of identity politics they decry.
Trump completely ignored Ryan's remarks, and criticism from other top GOP leaders, and reiterated his comments about the judge in interviews that aired over the weekend. He also went further in one television interview saying he'd also have concerns about a Muslim judge showing some type of bias towards him.
The venue Ryan selected for his Tuesday rollout -- a drug treatment and rehab center for those struggling with alcohol and drug addiction in a predominantly African-American neighborhood -- is in sharp contrast to the GOP front-runner, a billionaire whose campaign is based in a gilded skyscraper in Midtown Manhattan, also home to his ostentatious penthouse home.
Trump offended many on Friday when he gave a shout out to "my African-American," a black audience member.
Tuesday features new plans to reduce poverty in the United States, an issue Ryan has focused on throughout his political career. His mentor, the late Jack Kemp, a House member for 18 years who served as Housing secretary and ran as the GOP's vice presidential nominee in 1996, inspired many of the ideas that targeted poor and disadvantaged communities through tax breaks and other incentives.
In what appeared to be a veiled shot at Trump, one Ryan aide told CNN about the focus on the detailed agenda, "He believes we need to offer the country a clear choice on policy -- not just personality."
While Ryan aides call the agenda "bold" they acknowledge that it will focus on areas where Republicans are united and steer clear of hot-button issues that divide the speaker and the front-runner -- namely immigration and trade.
The new agenda, dubbed "a Better Way" in a highly-produced video released over the weekend featuring the speaker in his office outlines the other areas House Republicans will discuss in coming weeks -- tax reform, rolling back and replacing Obamacare, strengthening national security, promoting economic growth, and protecting the Constitution.
Some of the House GOP's most vulnerable incumbents like Illinois Rep. Bob Dold and Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo have already told CNN they don't plan to vote for Trump. The blueprint that Ryan crafted is a way for them to separate themselves from Trump, but Democrats are working fast to weld the GOP nominee to every Republican on the ballot in November.
"For years, Sen. McConnell and other Republican leaders embraced the darkest elements within their party," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said in a floor speech. "The Republican Party made anti-woman, anti-Latino, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-Obama policies the norm. Trump is the logical conclusion of what Republican leaders have been saying and doing for seven-and-a-half years."
Republicans say control of Congress will be dictated by their actions, but they worry that Trump could make it harder if he continues to make comments that force the party to repudiate him.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, who is up for reelection, said he disagrees with Trump's comments but added that Republicans are "spending a lot of time talking about our differences with our nominee."
"We're running on our record," Burr said. "We're not running on his record ... I think it's important when there's a stark contrast between me and the nominee that I express that."
Still, Burr said "it's not my role" to ask Trump to retract his comment.
Sen. Mike Rounds, R-South Dakota, said, "It's either Hillary or Donald, and we're going to stick with Donald."
But asked about Trump's comments on Curiel, Rounds said: "I think Mr. Trump can speak for himself and we're not going to defend his comments."
In an interview with Roll Call last week, McConnell insisted that despite all the unpredictable comments from Trump, GOP convictions will be represented in the GOP platform that is adopted at the Republican convention this summer.
"I told Donald Trump I thought we ought not to have a fight over the platform, that he wasn't going to change what we think Republicans are," McConnell said. "He wouldn't be the first candidate for president that didn't follow every particular part of the platform, and I recommended to him that we not get in a fight over the platform."