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'Never Trump' Republicans In Congress Now Eager To Work With Next President

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

During the presidential campaign, Republicans in Congress were some of Donald Trump's toughest critics. But his victory has changed the calculus on Capitol Hill. Those same critics now say they stand ready to work alongside the Trump administration. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis has more.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Back in February, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham spoke of his fierce opposition to Donald Trump at a dinner with Washington reporters.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: And I don't think he understands what makes America great. I'm not really happy about where the country is right now.

DAVIS: But here was Graham on Tuesday again speaking to Washington reporters.

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GRAHAM: He'll make America great again, starting today.

DAVIS: That's the difference an election makes, especially one in which many Republicans in Congress didn't believe they were going to win. Oklahoma lawmaker Tom Cole, this week, now described Republicans this way.

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TOM COLE: Pretty giddy (laughter) - you know, they - all of a sudden, they see - look, I think everybody left here, most members, thinking, OK, we're going to come back. It's going to be four more years of trench warfare.

DAVIS: But Republicans maintain control of both the House and the Senate. And with a Republican coming into the White House, the party has its best chance in years to advance an agenda that includes repealing Obamacare, cutting taxes and sealing the U.S.-Mexico border. That's why Trump loyalists, like North Carolina Republican Mark Meadows, say the party needs to move on so they can legislate.

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MARK MEADOWS: The focus on who is loyal, who is not loyal is an argument that is probably somewhere around eight or nine on a 10-point list of things that are on board.

DAVIS: And there's no apparent hard feelings, at least on this end of Pennsylvania Avenue, says Arizona Senator Jeff Flake. He was another prominent Trump critic, who at one point called on him to step down as the party's nominee. Flake credits the way Democrats have handled Trump's victory as a model for how to move past this contentious election.

JEFF FLAKE: If Hillary Clinton can make a wonderful statement and the president has been very magnanimous - this is what elections are about. And so my own position is you assume the best and look for the good.

DAVIS: Trump's former Republican opponents, like Pennsylvania lawmaker Charlie Dent, say they're not worried about retribution from Trump, even though he is known to hold a grudge against his critics.

CHARLIE DENT: No, not at all. I'll tell you why because - look, I'm in the Appropriations Committee. I oversee a lot of funding for departments that are important to the country. It would not be in their interest to be vindictive.

DAVIS: Dent says Republicans need to focus on the real challenge ahead, how to run the country. With narrow margins in Congress and no expectations for Democrats to help pass their bills, Republicans are going to be tested in new ways next year.

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DENT: There's going be much more pressure on Republicans to pass things, like debt ceiling increases and all appropriations bills, with our votes. So, you know, will we be able to do that? I don't know.

DAVIS: Dent says party unity may not come easy. Trump campaigned on many promises, like more spending and less free trade, that have deep Republican opposition in Congress. Trump's win may have made new allies out of past critics, but Republicans like Lindsey Graham say they won't be pushovers either.

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GRAHAM: But last time I looked, they got to come through Congress. So my name's in the book. I'm ready to talk. I'm ready to work with you where I can. And if I can, I'll tell you. I'm not going to blindside anybody. I'm just going to be Lindsey Graham.

DAVIS: Trump's win brought Republicans to the negotiating table. Now he just has to make a deal. Susan Davis, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.