House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., left, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., both denounced Donald Trump’s proposal to bar Muslims from entering the U.S. But neither would outright reject supporting Trump if he were the GOP nominee for president in 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Republicans on Capitol Hill strongly denounced a proposal from Donald Trump — their party’s frontrunner in the presidential race — for a “total and complete” ban on Muslims entering the United States.

But the two leading Congressional Republicans, House Speaker Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), both stopped short of  saying they would reject Trump were he to lead their party’s ticket in 2016.

“I’m going to support whoever the Republican nominee is, and I’m going to stand up for what I believe in as I do that,” Ryan said on Tuesday morning.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), without using Trump’s name, also said he would support the Republican nominee, while calling proposals to bar visitors based on religion “completely inconsistent” with American values.

The response from the GOP leaders illustrates the tricky position in which Republican leaders find themselves when it comes to the unpredictable Trump. Prominent Republicans, including party chairman Reince Priebus, have treated the businessman with kid gloves even as his rhetoric has inched further toward the fringes. Trump has previously discussed mounting a run as an independent if he is not treated “fairly” by party bosses, stoking GOP fears that he might eventually peel off voters from the party’s eventual nominee.

“I will support the nominee of the party,” said Arizona Sen. John McCain, the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee. “I doubt if there’s any nominee I totally agree with in my lifetime.”

Pressed on how he could disagree vehemently with Trump on this issue, yet theoretically vote for him, McCain deferred to the limits of the two-party system. “I am a loyal Republican, and I rely on the good judgment of Republican voters.”

Some Republicans stated that the question was moot because the businessman would not win the GOP nod.

“He won’t be the nominee,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.). “I don’t think he’ll win Iowa, and I don’t think he’ll play second fiddle to anyone. As soon as someone eclipses him, and he figures ‘I can’t say anything crazier than I’ve said to change the equation,’ then he’ll find a way to back out.”

Flake called Trump’s proposal “lunacy” and “just awful, frankly.”

“Just when you think he can’t stoop any lower, he manages to do so,” Flake said, wondering how Trump’s plan would affect diplomats and foreign officials who are Muslim from taking official visits to the U.S. He pointed specifically to a visit scheduled next month from Jordanian King Abdullah.

“I’m not sure he’d be able to come under a Trump presidency,” Flake said.

On Tuesday morning, Ryan said he typically does not comment on the GOP presidential contest but felt compelled to make an exception. He then proceeded to dismiss Trump’s comments in some of the strongest terms yet heard from a top Republican leader.

“Freedom of religion is a fundamental constitutional principle. It’s a founding principle of this country,” Ryan told reporters following a closed-door morning meeting at the Republican National Committee. “This is not conservatism. What was proposed yesterday is not what this party stands for. And more importantly, it’s not what this country stands for.”

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Ryan’s comments were echoed in the halls of Capitol Hill, where the House took up a measure on Tuesday to restrict the visa waiver program, which allows citizens of 38 countries to enter the U.S. without a traditional visa. They were elaborated on at the White House, where press secretary Josh Earnest issued a stinging denunciation of Trump’s strategy, saying that it “disqualifies him from serving as president.”

“The question now is about the rest of the Republican Party, and whether they’ll be dragged into the dustbin history with him,” Earnest said, referring to the businessman as a “carnival barker” who engages in “vacuous sloganeering” and has “fake hair.”

Earnest noted that despite GOP condemnations of the proposal, Ryan said he would still support Trump if he were the Republican nominee. And that is Republicans’ dilemma: if Trump is the party’s standard-bearer, they would be inevitably linked to his controversial statements, especially if they themselves are up for reelection simultaneously.

One of the handful of Senate Republicans who are facing close reelection contests in 2016, Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, showed some frustration Tuesday as reporters pressed her to respond to Trump’s latest bombastic proposal.

“I’ve already said where I stand on the issue: I don’t think there should be a religious-based test for our immigration standards — it should be a fact-based risk assessment,” she said.

“You’ve got a lot of presidential candidates in this race, so I’m not going to spend my time with what they’re doing. I’m going to spend time on what I’m doing,” she added.

Another GOP senator facing a tough race, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, simply denied that Trump’s antics would have any impact on his contest and pivoted to discussing his proposals for tightening the screening of refugees and foreign visitors.

But a top GOP leader, Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota, said Trump’s comments have distracted from what has been a careful Republican messaging effort to raise doubts about the Obama administration’s national security policy and to pursue targeted reforms to border security programs.

“We’re trying to take what we think are reasonable steps … but, you know, obviously Trump is going to do what Trump’s going to do,” Thune said. “Unfortunately it’s not, in the overall scheme of things, particularly helpful for us trying to come up with legislative solutions that actually will get at this problem.”

Asked if he would support Trump as nominee, Thune inhaled sharply and chuckled: “We’re gonna cross that bridge.”

Some Republican lawmakers and  Trump allies — including Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), who is an inspiration for the businessman on immigration policy, and appeared with him at an Alabama rally — sidestepped answering the question of whether they supported Trump’s plan.

“I don’t know that he has any formal proposal,” Sessions said. “But what I’m hearing is that the American people expect Congress to do something about the immigration problem. They want it do something about the terrorist problem.”

Sessions added: “Congress is refusing to act. The president is refusing to act. And people are not happy. They want something done. He made his proposal, and people are just going to have to evaluate it.”

But Sessions wouldn’t say if he personally backed Trump’s plan, walking into Senate lunches and declining to answer.

Iowa Rep. Steve King (R), perhaps the House’s fiercest advocate of tighter border policies, would not dismiss Trump’s proposal out of hand.

“We have to respect the rights of citizenship here in America,” he said. “That’s a constitutional principle that I wouldn’t compromise on. Other than that, Mr. Trump has given some of us a little more room to operate.”

He added: “We have a constitutional right to determine who comes to America and we can set out any criteria we want from a constitutional perspective, so let’s have a debate on how we protect America.”

But more Republicans dismissed Trump’s proposal as inconsistent with the country’s principles and history of welcoming immigrants.

Responding to the comments, Ryan said it is “incumbent” on Republican leaders to “stand up and defend what conservatism is and what the Republican Party stands for.”

“I’m not concerned about lasting damage to the party; I’m concerned about standing up for our country’s principles,” he said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), noting that he knew the GOP front-runner personally and liked him, said it was “problematic for him to say that.”

“It concerns me if that’s the attitude. We may be losing the greatness of America in the process,” Hatch said. The idea is “not going to flow well with a country that has always welcomed refugees,” he said.

Some Republicans worried that the comments might even backfire, helping the Islamic State beef up its recruitment efforts in the wake of the San Bernardino, Calif., and Paris shootings.

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, said the comments were “not helpful” but declined to say that they might help the Islamic State recruit adherents. “I don’t think ISIS needs any help recruiting,” he said.

Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), one of the House’s more conservative members, was even more critical, calling the proposal unconstitutional.

“We can’t put that kind of a test on anybody,” he said. “It’s not about anti-Muslim, it’s about anti-terrorism, period.”

 

Karoun Demirjian, Kelsey Snell and David Weigel contributed to this report.