Pence Emerges as Trump’s Point Person With Wary Hill Republicans

  • Capitol offices, regular caucus attendance show early angling
  • He’s ‘quarterback’ for an untested Trump, Democrat Durbin says

Vice President-elect Mike Pence walks out to speak to members of the media as he departs from Trump Tower in New York, on Jan. 6, 2017.

Photographer: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Congressional Republicans seeking traction with an unpredictable and untried President-elect Donald Trump are embracing an emissary: Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

The former six-term House member met with Republicans on both sides of the Capitol last week to discuss repealing Obamacare and other issues. In addition to his traditional Senate office, he’ll have one in the House -- a Capitol footprint not seen since Dick Cheney was vice president.

He’s also laying the groundwork to become a dealmaker in the Senate, reaching out to Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democrats from states Trump won who could decide which of the administration’s proposals can become law.

Joe Manchin

Photographer: Julia Schmalz/Bloomberg

“We’ll be able to work on many things,” Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia said as he left a private meeting with Pence last week. “We need to have a relationship, a dialogue, to find out if there’s a difference how we work through it.”

Still, many other Democrats say they see scant common ground with Pence and expect to see little benefit from his congressional maneuvering.

Tie-Breaking Votes

Vice presidents have always had a role in Congress -- they can cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate -- but Pence joins those with added clout because they’re former members. 

Cheney, a former House minority whip, was a regular fixture in the Capitol during George W. Bush’s presidency, and like Pence was invited to weekly Senate Republican caucus meetings to coordinate policy. Vice President Joe Biden was more hands-off, but he had cachet as a former chairman of the Foreign Relations and Judiciary panels and sometimes closed the deal with Republicans on big-ticket legislation.

Yet lawmakers in Trump’s own party are particularly wary of the incoming president, whom Republican leaders belatedly embraced and who has never before held public office. That raises the prospect that Pence’s roles will include buffer, wire-puller and even decoder for a chief executive who communicates in tweets and often parts ways with his party.

“It’s not so much laying down the law, which Cheney sometimes did, but rather somebody who can serve as a kind of interpreter of what the president is thinking and what’s going on at the White House,”said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Carrier Deal

Pence, also tapped by Trump to run his presidential transition team, has helped assemble what could result in one of the most conservative Cabinets in decades. As governor of Indiana until he stepped down Monday, Pence helped secure tax incentives from the state that helped Trump crow about keeping hundreds of jobs from air-conditioning company Carrier Corp. in the U.S. that otherwise would have gone to Mexico.

Pence and his wife on Monday officially move from Indiana to Washington, D.C., after the inauguration of Indiana’s new governor. Biden, as a traditional courtesy, sent the plane that’s known as Air Force Two when the sitting vice president is aboard to pick up the Pences.

After Trump takes office Jan. 20, Pence can draw on deep ties within Republican ranks as the Capitol’s policy agenda shifts into high gear.

Pence rose to become the No. 3 Republican leader, in charge of communication strategy, during 12 years in the House representing an eastern Indiana district. He was chairman in 2005-2006 of the Republican Study Committee, a group of House Republicans who back limited government.

Jeff Flake

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

He also forged close relationships with more independent-minded House members, including former Arizona Representative Jeff Flake of Arizona, who is now in the Senate and has been firmly in the camp of “Never Trump” lawmakers who refused to endorse the president-elect. Flake has praised Pence’s new role, calling him a solid go-between for Republicans seeking consensus on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, as have House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

‘Great Choice’

“We all really like Mike Pence,” McConnell of Kentucky told reporters after the November election. “If you asked any of us who served with him, we all like him. We all thought it was a great choice that President-elect Trump made in picking him.”

Yet some Democrats say that in the House, he was known less for legislative wins and bipartisanship than for pushing his party to the right.

“I think he’s a very good Republican,” said James Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat. “With Republicans, he’ll be great. With Democrats, not so good.”

Gerry Connolly

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, said he served with Pence for four years on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and that Pence, a born-again Christian, was a “gentleman, but a rigid ideologue” who opposed Connolly’s proposed legislation calling for protections for gay and lesbian foreign service officers.

Pence was rarely on the same side as Democrats on that panel or in the full House, Connolly said, adding he sees little likelihood Pence will be able to deliver bipartisan support for proposals. Instead, he said, he may encourage Republicans to take a harder line on social policy and other issues that could cause gridlock.

‘Relentless Opposition’

“At the starting gate, I don’t see much potential,” Connolly said. “That wasn’t his role here. His role was implacable, relentless opposition to the Obama administration and its agenda. He certainly spent very little time that I could observe attempting to find common ground at all.”

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democratic leader, said he’s not too surprised Republicans are resurrecting the added access for the vice president. Durbin says they may have little choice but to utilize Pence to bolster their efforts because Trump is so inexperienced in Washington.

“I think it’s pretty clear he’s going to be the quarterback of their congressional operation,” Durbin said in an interview. “When you consider the limited experience of the president-elect, you can understand why Pence would play a major role.”

— With assistance by Jennifer Jacobs

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