Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence (left), Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R) of California (center), and House Speaker Paul Ryan held a press conference on Capitol Hill Sept. 13, 2016.

On trip to Capitol Hill, Mike Pence shows his value to Trump

The GOP vice presidential candidate could be an important link to conservatives in the House, but his ability to reach out to the Senate and beyond remains untested. 

When Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the Republican vice presidential candidate, visited with House Republicans on Tuesday he was clearly happy to be among his peeps.

The former six-term member of the House called it “an emotional return.” Likewise, the House GOP leadership, particularly Speaker Paul Ryan, beamed alongside their former colleague at a joint press conference with Governor Pence, who came to the Hill to reassure skeptical House and Senate Republicans about their presidential standard bearer.

“We may not know Donald Trump, but we know Mike Pence, and we’re glad that Mike Pence is here,” said Rep. Dennis Ross (R) of Florida, a tea party favorite, speaking with reporters after the morning huddle.

Many Republicans believe that Pence can serve as an important conduit between a politically inexperienced President Trump and Republicans on the Hill. He’s well liked and has strong conservative credentials. Some view Pence, who once led House conservatives and served as No. 3 in the House GOP leadership, as particularly helpful with hard-line Republicans in the House Freedom Caucus.

“I think Pence can be the Freedom Caucus whisperer,” says John Feehery, former spokesman for Republican Dennis Hastert of Illinois, when he was House speaker in the 2000s. The biggest challenge for a President Trump, says Mr. Feehery, will be the House, which has become dysfunctional due to the intra-party split with hardliners.

“If Trump wants to get anything done, he’ll have to go through the House first,” Feehery says. “Pence is really, really important to a strategy to get any kind of agenda through.”

Bridge to Congress

Every White House needs to build bridges to Congress to accomplish anything of significance. That can be particularly challenging when an “outsider” occupies the Oval Office – though the liaison need not always be the vice president.

When a peanut farmer and former governor of Georgia named Jimmy Carter moved to Pennsylvania Avenue in 1977, he relied heavily on Vice President Walter Mondale, a former senator, to connect him with members of his own party. Same for President Reagan, who turned to his vice president, George H. W. Bush, the consummate Washington insider and a former member of Congress.

Presidents such as Reagan and Bill Clinton can become their own most effective lobbyists on the Hill, as Reagan was with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill and President Clinton was with former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Indeed, if Hillary Clinton is elected, she could well be a hands-on negotiator, given her policy chops and senatorial background, observers say.

Despite the turnover since Pence left Congress in 2013, when he become Indiana’s governor, “he knows how the House operates, and could play a role there,” particularly as a conduit of Republican members’ views back to a President Trump, says Norman Ornstein, a longtime congressional and political observer at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

But Mr. Ornstein and others caution about overestimating the powers of Pence.

The former congressman may be popular among Republicans for his conservative views and integrity, but “it’s not as if he’s going to have connections with or be persuasive with any Democrats, and he doesn’t really know the Senate,” Ornstein says.

He doubts, for instance, that Pence would have the cross-party cachet of Vice President Joe Biden, who served in the Senate for more than three decades. The vice president became known as the “the McConnell whisperer” for his ability to cut budget and fiscal deals with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, who is now the Senate majority leader.

When visiting the Senate Tuesday, Pence gave out his cellphone number to GOP senators and encouraged them to call him, Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee told the Associated Press.

How close to Trump?

At the same time, Ornstein wonders whether Pence and a President Trump would develop a very close relationship or continue the longstanding tradition of weekly lunches between the president and vice president to discuss strategy. Trump and Pence are getting to know each other, but they’ve largely campaigned separately.

“There’s no sense that Trump has people in his entourage who he sees as equals or peers,” says Ornstein. “They’re subordinates.”

Another asterisk to Pence as congressional interlocutor is the “huge vacuum” in the White House that’s likely to result from Trump’s lack of political experience and knowledge about Congress, says John Pitney, a congressional expert and professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

“That means a lot of infighting and political scrambling for position,” says Mr. Pitney. “If Trump picks a chief of staff with congressional experience, that person would probably fight to be the main contact with Congress.”

What would make things particularly challenging for Republicans on the Hill is “the extent to which Trump really doesn’t have connections to the Republican party,” Pitney points out. The billionaire was once a Democrat and has supported Democrats in the not too distant past.

“Pence could whisper all he wants, but the question is, will Trump listen?” he adds.

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