As Trump emissary to Congress, Mike Pence
faces potential obstacle - his boss
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[January 20, 2017]
By Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Shortly after Donald
Trump won the U.S. presidential election in November, Vice
President-elect Mike Pence visited the country’s largest manufacturing
lobby group, six blocks from the White House, to brainstorm about
Trump's legislative agenda.
The conversation at the National Association of Manufacturers was
friendly, with a lot of "give and take," said Aric Newhouse, NAM's
senior vice president of government relations. The business group felt
Pence spoke their language and that it would be full-steam ahead on
long-sought goals such as simplifying the tax code and repealing
Obamacare, President Barack Obama’s signature legislation that aimed to
extend health insurance to cover more Americans.
But over the past week, Trump has sown confusion about some of his
legislative aims. He criticized a key element of his Republican Party's
tax plan, known as the border adjustment tax. He also seemed to muddy
the waters on his promise of repealing Obamacare by calling for
healthcare insurance for all.
While NAM was not unduly alarmed, the episode highlights the challenge
facing Pence, 57, who will serve as chief emissary to Capitol Hill for
Trump after the New York businessman is sworn in as the 45th U.S.
president on Friday.
Pence spent a dozen years as a congressman beginning in 2001, forging a
number of personal relationships, especially with conservatives. While
he does not have a reputation on the Hill as a deal-maker, lawmakers,
Hill aides and lobbyists describe him as affable and a good communicator
who is respectful in his dealings with both friend and foe.
But the NAM experience shows that Pence's biggest obstacle in striking
deals in Congress may be Trump himself. That's because people
negotiating with Pence may not always know if he speaks for his boss.
Pence and Trump are a study in contrasts.
Where Trump is combative and chases the limelight, Pence, most recently
governor of Indiana, is even-keeled and calm, a man described by
Republicans and Democrats as articulate and upbeat.
Few vice presidents in modern U.S. history have occupied the central
role in legislative affairs that Pence will have. Former Vice President
Dick Cheney cut deals and cajoled lawmakers for President George W.
Bush, but Pence's assignment may be broader.
In Trump's first 100 days in office, Pence will be "leading the charge"
on a number of initiatives in Congress, such as rewriting Obamacare and
overhauling the tax code, senior Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told
"He has the assurance and the green light to do so from President
Trump,” Conway said.
"He is a major part of every serious conversation and important decision
that is made, especially when it comes to the legislative agenda," she
While Pence certainly appears to be part of Trump's inner circle, it’s
far from clear who is closest to the new president, or whether they will
tend to agree with Pence.
Even though Republicans control both chambers of Congress, Pence will
need plenty of political finesse to rally the party's sometimes unruly
rank-and-file lawmakers behind Trump's agenda, once it is more fully
From the conservative Tea Party faction to the moderate Republicans, the
party remains divided. Many Republicans differ with Trump on issues such
as free trade and worry he might be too willing to spend money that
could increase budget deficits.
'LIMBAUGH ON DECAF'
In his home state of Indiana during the 1990s, Pence honed his
communication skills as a talk radio host. But his low-key style stood
in stark contrast to many conservative radio hosts. He has called
himself "Rush Limbaugh on decaf," referring to the influential
right-wing talk show host famous for his flame-throwing statements.
Pence, who was raised Catholic and later became an evangelical
Christian, would sometimes host Bible studies in his office in the House
of Representatives. Texas Representative John Carter attended those
meetings and recalled that Pence “had a little setup of a radio station”
there in a reminder of his former career.
During Republican President George W. Bush's administration, Pence
firmly established himself as a fiscal hawk.
[to top of second column]
Vice President-elect Mike Pence arrives at Trump Tower in Manhattan,
New York City, U.S. on December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/File
He resisted initiatives that he viewed as government overreach,
including the 2002 "No Child Left Behind" education reform that
emphasized standardized testing as a way of gauging how well schools
were doing in raising student performance.
Pence's staunch opposition to big government made him one of the
"forerunners" to what later became the Tea Party, said Michael
Steel, a former spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan's predecessor,
Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who served in the House with Pence
during the 2000s, said the two of them fashioned themselves as
self-appointed fiscal watchdogs.
BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID
They kept a close eye on late-night sessions where other lawmakers
would seek to get more government spending approved without anyone
"Mike and I would have to wait up all night and rush to the (House)
floor and burst through the doors” to object to those measures,
Flake recounted in an interview.
“Somebody said at one point when we burst through it looked like the
saloon doors in 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,'” Flake said,
referring to the 1969 film about the two Wild West outlaws.
Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, a leading conservative voice,
said Pence has been a role model for other Republicans on how to
advance conservative principles without being hard-edged.
"I always remember the line Pence had: 'I'm a conservative and I'm
not mad about it' ... It's a line I've used many times, saying that
Mike Pence always used to say that," Jordan said.
Pence calls Speaker Ryan, who has struggled with staunch
conservatives in his caucus, a close friend. Their ties may help to
smooth over some of the tensions that arose between Ryan and Trump
during the 2016 campaign.
Cultivating Republicans won't be Pence's only job.
If Republicans in the House of Representatives can rally around
Trump's agenda, Democrats will have few tools to block them.
But in the Senate, Democrats can use procedural moves to stop
legislation that does not otherwise have support from 60 senators.
Republicans control 52 votes in the 100-member chamber.
Pence's smooth demeanor will go only so far given his ideological
gulf with congressional Democrats. He has raised the ire of
Democrats with his outspoken stance against abortion, his work
against gay rights, his opposition to measures aimed at women’s pay
equity in the workplace and his determination to repeal Obamacare.
Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, who was part of the House
Republican leadership during the mid-2000s, said he expected Pence
would stick to his conservative principles, even if they clashed
“I don’t think he’d be very effective arguing against his own
feelings," Blunt said. "But I think he’d be smart enough to go to
the president and say, ‘I can be supportive of this because you are
the president and I am the vice president, but I am not going to be
a good salesman’” on that particular issue.
(Reporting By Susan Cornwell, Richard Cowan, Steve Holland and Julia
Edwards Ainsley; Editing by Caren Bohan and Ross Colvin)
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