Amid the sea of red “Make America Great Again” hats, blue “Socialism sucks” T-shirts and the marathon series of speeches and panel discussions featuring top White House advisers and other recognizable faces at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, there was something in much shorter supply: Republican members of Congress.
Just one current U.S. senator spoke on Thursday at CPAC at the National Harbor complex in Oxon Hill, Md., with no others scheduled for the rest of the four-day gathering. Nine U.S. House members are on the roster of speakers.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who took the stage to AC/DC in 2016, is not here. Nor is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who famously presented a colleague with a gun at CPAC in 2014. And Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who once sought to build buzz here for their budding presidential campaigns, are nowhere to be found.
During Barack Obama’s presidency, CPAC served as a tryout of sorts for ambitious Republican lawmakers seeking to brand themselves as the future of the party, and for congressional leaders looking to articulate their vision for governance. Now, it’s the place where President Trump is expected to reaffirm the themes he rode to victory in a Friday speech — a year after he canceled on CPAC at the last minute.
“Last year everybody’s putting the wares on display — it was kind of auditioning for the presidency,” said former representative Tom Davis (R-Va.). “This time, it is basically Trump trying to co-opt these folks.”
Davis added: “What a difference a year makes.”
Last year, CPAC kicked off during a week when Congress was in session. Davis and several GOP congressional aides noted that Congress is out this week, and members are tending to business in their home states and districts and elsewhere.
“He’s on political travel this week,” said Ryan spokesman Doug Andres of his boss.
Antonia Ferrier, a spokeswoman for McConnell, said, “As you know, this week is a recess week, and Senator McConnell is home in Kentucky. McConnell’s 2014 appearance came as he was in the midst of a reelection campaign and eager to tout his gun rights record.
Ferrier directed questions about whether McConnell was invited to speak to CPAC organizers. Matt Schlapp, head of the American Conservative Union, which puts on the event, did not respond to a request for comment.
Rubio was invited to speak, his office said, but is not in Washington and had to decline. Aides did not respond with an explanation of why. Rubio has taken heat from demonstrators who have expressed concerns about his refusal to hold town hall meetings during the recess.
The only senator who spoke at CPAC is Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), the firebrand conservative who clashed with Trump during the campaign. Cruz is up for reelection in 2018 and is seen in the party as someone who might still harbor presidential ambitions.
Cruz predicted in his remarks that there will be another vacancy on the Supreme Court later this year but provided no explanation for why he believes that. He seemed to relish the notion of another confirmation fight with Democrats.
Paul, the libertarian-leaning Republican who won CPAC’s presidential straw poll in 2013 and 2014, has seen his stock in the GOP diminish after a disappointing presidential campaign. His office did not respond to a request for comment explaining why he was not speaking at CPAC.
During the campaign, Trump railed against the political establishment, including bashing GOP congressional leadership in blunt fashion at times. The relationship between Trump and congressional Republicans has been uneasy during the first few weeks of his presidency.
McConnell has said he likes what Trump is doing but not what he is saying and tweeting. Other Capitol Hill Republicans have been deeply unsettled by some of Trump’s policies, most notably his entry ban, which was stopped by a federal court.
The House members speaking at CPAC include Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), who participated in a panel discussion titled “FREE stuff vs FREE-dom: Millennials’ Love Affair with Bernie Sanders.”
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, is scheduled to sit for an interview with Alex Marlow of Breitbart News on Friday on the “conundrum of tax reform.”
Congressional leaders — and Congress as a whole — continues to be unpopular. A Gallup poll released this month showed that the approval rating of Congress stood at 28 percent — up from 19 percent in January.
In his remarks, Cruz vouched for a proposal that some voters might like, given those dismal numbers: imposing term limits on members of Congress.