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Without A Nominee, GOP Hill Leaders Press Agenda Forward

BALTIMORE - With the 2016 presidential campaign raging in Iowa and New Hampshire, congressional Republicans gathered here Thursday to begin charting a path forward for the country even though their party's presidential nomination battle is far from settled.

"Our presidential candidates are out there beating each other up at the moment - that's going to solve itself at some point here in the process," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters but said Congress is already busy doing "issue development to try to get ready for 2017."

House Speaker Paul Ryan, who only took over the position late last year, has said waiting until summer when Republicans expect to nominate a candidate is too late to provide Americans with a choice of which party should lead the country.

House Speaker Paul Ryan: A day in his life, his thoughts on the candidates 5:14

Chairman of the Republican Policy Committee Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) agreed: "What we're doing with the House in 2016 with this bold agenda is actually outlining the blueprint for where we would go with a Republican President in 2017."

The question lingering overhead, however, is exactly who will secure the Republican nomination amidst this crowded field and will that person even see eye-to-eye on the agenda formulated from Republicans in Congress. The rhetoric coming from Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Cruz (R-TX), among others, appears to be at odds with the vision trying to be pushed by the party's elite.

Trump, for example, has proposed temporarily banning Muslims from entering the United States to which Speaker Ryan very forcefully condemned. Senate Democrats, looking to seize on the division, have threatened to call for a vote on the politically toxic idea on the Senate floor.

"I have tried to avoid turning the Senate into a studio for the presidential campaign," McConnell said when asked about the suggestion of a vote. "But it's worth noting, that what's good for the goose, is good for the gander. And so you can expect amendments that they [Democrats] might not like related to the Sanders or Clinton campaign."

During South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's Republican response to the State of the Union earlier this week, she took a clear swipe at the controversial rhetoric on the campaign trail being used by Trump and others.

Haley said in her nationally televised speech: "during anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation."

Ryan and McConnell tapped Haley to give this speech and were pleased with how she rose to the occasion and did not knock her for the comments clearly geared towards Trump.

"I think what she is ultimately trying to do is talk about how do we have a message that is inspiring, that is inclusive, hopeful, optimistic, and that unites the country," Ryan told reporters Thursday."We don't want to have another president like this one that divides the country. We want to unite and that means listening to all voices - those that are frustrated, those who are inspiring, all of the above."

McConnell agreed, noting: "What people remember about Ronald Reagan is not that he was a solid conservative but that he was cheerful, upbeat and optimistic about the future of American. He believed in this country and it's potential and expressed it better than anybody else ever has, and that needs to be our message going into the fall of 2016."

Despite the clear desire from congressional leadership to speak in more inclusive tones on the trail, all of the leaders have vowed to support whoever wins out as the nominee.

"I think whoever comes out of our field is going to be able to unite our party and is going to be able to win in November, because the contrast is going to be someone who's fighting over who's more socialist, Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton," House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) said.

Republicans currently control both chambers of Congress but some have quietly voiced concerns that having Trump or Cruz at the top of the ballot in November could hurt the party's chances of retaining that majority.

Sen. Barasso - asked whether Republicans can hold onto the Senate under Trump - dodged: "I'm going to support the nominee of the party and I want to get the most conservative person nominated who can win in November and I think we have many candidates that fit that bill right now."

While congressional republicans hope to help influence the political conversation this year, leadership has conceded that many of their larger policy priorities, such as tax reform and a comprehensive replacement to the Affordable Care Act, would take a backseat during the election year. Instead, they plan to use the truncated legislative year (they are only scheduled to be in session for votes for 95 days in 2016) to attempt to pass each of the 12 government funding appropriations bills individually, something that Congress hasn't done since 1994.