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Republicans Stress Importance Of Senate Majority If Biden Becomes President

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Senate Republicans have largely walked lockstep with President Trump during his first term. But now with Trump's national poll numbers consistently behind Joe Biden's, GOP lawmakers are putting some space between themselves and the president. They're telling voters a Republican Senate would be a critical check on a House and White House controlled by Democrats. NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales has more.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: These days, congressional Republicans haven't been bursting with confidence over President Trump's chances at winning another term.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

MITT ROMNEY: I did not vote for President Trump.

LISA MURKOWSKI: What I'm trying to do is make sure that we've got a good, strong majority here in the Senate.

SUSAN COLLINS: So I'll work with whomever is president.

GRISALES: That's GOP Senators Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. And they're not saying who got their presidential vote. Romney is the lone GOP member who voted for Trump's removal during the Senate impeachment trial. And he's still bullish on Republicans keeping their hold on the Senate no matter who's in the Oval.

ROMNEY: I think people vote for the senator they think is the person who best represents their state and their point of view. I don't think they look so much at who's checking who. And I think it's very hard to know who's actually going to be president.

GRISALES: He's also among the large contingency of Senate Republicans who have diverged with Trump on spending a lot more on a new wave of coronavirus relief aid, stalling out on a deal with Democrats to approve a $2 trillion plan. That stance has coincided with concessions by Republicans that they're facing an increasingly tough challenge keeping their Senate majority and especially the presidency.

SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO: We have a lot of really tight races - certainly the president's race but also a lot of tight Senate races.

GRISALES: That's West Virginia's Shelley Moore Capito. She's in a strong position to be reelected but says her colleagues in competitive states are fighting for another term. And now she's among the GOP members ready to talk about how a Republican-led Senate would be a firewall to a Democratic-led House and a potential Biden presidency.

MOORE CAPITO: If the House and the presidency were to be Democratic, there's no doubt that that really raises the stakes to keep the Senate Republican. And I think because we want to have checks and balances, that makes it extremely important.

GRISALES: She and other Republicans say they could stop Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other Democrats from eliminating the legislative filibuster, which would clear the way for a simple majority to push through an expanded Supreme Court and other efforts.

JOHN CORNYN: So that Democrats couldn't eliminate the filibuster and make D.C. a state or Puerto Rico. So it would force the White House and the Senate to compromise and negotiate.

GRISALES: That's Senator John Cornyn, who's facing an aggressive reelection fight in Texas, a longtime traditional red stronghold that's also getting surprising attention as a swing state. Recently, Cornyn said he's had differences with Trump and shared those privately. He's seen a wave of blue money in his state, and he's making that part of his argument to his constituents to keep national Democrats like Schumer from putting the thumb on the scale for Texans.

CORNYN: We've seen a flood of new money coming into the race from Senator Schumer and others. Now we're being outspent about 2-to-1 on TV.

GRISALES: North Carolina's Thom Tillis is in the midst of an even tighter race, and he is one of the first Senate Republicans to raise the notion of a Biden firewall.

THOM TILLIS: We can have cooler heads prevail and do the work of the people. That's what they sent us here to do.

GRISALES: In the final stretch, their argument is that voters want divided government to protect against what they say are extreme policies.

Claudia Grisales, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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