Politics

Mike Pence: Congressional Buddy or Fixer?

Vice president enjoys goodwill, but his Hill role is evolving

Vice President Mike Pence, seen here with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, was hailed as President Donald Trump’s congressional point man, but he fell short on cutting a deal on health care last month. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Vice President Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s often-celebrated chief liaison to Capitol Hill, failed in his first attempt at brokering a deal with Congress. And some House Republicans appear split on whether the White House should hand him a bigger role as they give a health care overhaul another try. 

Pence, who spent more than a decade in the House and was part of the GOP leadership team, was supposed to be Trump’s legislative get-things-done guy. Yet, so far, the vice president’s measurable legislative feats end with his votes, as president of the Senate, to break three volatile ties in that chamber.

To be sure, the former Indiana congressman played a central role in helping craft the initial failed health care measure. But as the president last month stepped to the forefront in the frantic push to assuage conservatives and moderates, Pence, as any No. 2 would, stepped back a bit, GOP lawmakers and sources said.

“I think it’s enough of a ‘Trump plan’ to where probably the president wants to be personally involved,” House Rules Chairman Pete Sessions told Roll Call. “I think if the president asked him to do, I’m sure Mike is up to the task,” the Texas Republican said of a larger role for Pence, should another sustained push on overhauling the health care system take place.

“But I just think the president has his opinion and Mike’s probably going to let the president have his opinion,” Sessions added.

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Conservative support

Notably, conservative House Republicans appear more eager to provide Pence some political cover for failing to deliver the president his first victory in a major legislative battle.

“He was in that last visit, on Friday at noon, at the Capitol Hill Club,” said Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, referring to a last-ditch meeting Pence and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price held at the House Republicans’ watering hole on March 24, the day Trump and Speaker Paul D. Ryan agreed to pull the health care bill.

“He was in every meeting leading up to that as they related to the White House,” Sanford said of the vice president. “I would say he was deeply involved and I think he has a reservoir of goodwill within the House and particularly in the conservative caucus.”

David Winston, a onetime strategic planning aide to former GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich, said the vice president’s chief role in the 17-day health care overhaul saga was to “facilitate conversations” among skeptical House Republicans and senior White House officials — including Trump.

“This always was a dynamic that was going to take time to work through,” said Winston, who now runs his own private political strategy firm. “He didn’t come into any meeting and say, ‘OK, this is how it’s going to be.’ In the end, there just wasn’t time for the vice president to work through everything that needed to be worked through.”

“The vice president knows a lot of these folks, and everyone saw him as an asset. He can facilitate conversations and talk, but members need to work through these things amongst themselves,” he said. “My sense is the vice president did a good job, but just ran out of time.”

Another House conservative, Rep. Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, called for Pence to be given a bigger role by senior Trump administration officials in closing a deal next time. And that next time could come soon, as House Republicans and White House officials are involved in new talks that included meetings into the night on Monday.

Pence and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus met separately Monday with House moderates and the conservative House Freedom Caucus, though there was no deal struck on a measure that could get a majority of votes. “Just talking,” Priebus said after those meetings when asked where legislation stands; Pence did not respond to questions.

“I think he probably will be more involved,” Jones said of the vice president. “He has friendships here and people like him. [Members] still are going to want to see the final product [before voting].”

For his part, Trump, shortly after the vote was nixed on March 24, signaled publicly that he thought Pence and other members of his administration did a solid job.

Tom Price and Mike Pence, who is right here, our vice president, our great vice president. Everybody worked hard,” Trump said. “I thought [Price] did a fantastic job. Same with Mike Pence. I think these two guys, they worked so hard and really did a fantastic job.”

The anti-Bannon

But as House Republicans began talking among themselves last week about how to revive the effort to dismantle the 2010 health care law and replace it with their own, it was White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, not Pence, whom Trump initially sent to Capitol Hill to meet with members.

Asked about those Bannon meetings, Sanford was quick to defend Pence.

“I don’t think in any way that the vice president should be blamed for what did or did not happen with regard to health care,” he said. “And I think that he remains an incredibly strong asset that ought to be used, particularly with the conservative faction in the House.

“This debate got 17 days, we had 186 for the Affordable Care Act, about that same number for [Medicare] Part D,” Sanford said. “And so, you know, it was a fairly herculean task that he was being asked to complete.”

Jones was adamant that the vice president should remain Trump’s point man. “I think it’ll be more positive if he takes a bigger lead on this issue,” the North Carolina Republican said of Pence.

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Skepticism of Bannon, who has no legislative experience beyond last month’s health care push, is evident among Republicans on Capitol Hill.

“I’m not sure that’s the …,” Jones said, appearing to censor himself a bit when asked about Bannon’s recent Hill meetings, before adding, “On the issue of health care, I think Mike Pence is the best point man.”

As House Republicans and the White House give a health care overhaul another go, Sessions, the Rules chairman, said there would have to be “some check of what are we capable of, and where’s the mid-point — not the middle — but the midpoint of passing this? What are those parameters? I’m still looking for those.”

Asked if the vice president is, as many around town say, the perfect individual to play a larger role next time in helping find that “midpoint,” Sessions demurred. His face tensed a bit as he paused for several seconds and thought about his response.

“I don’t want to talk Mike into having to do something,” the Texas Republican said, “that he maybe doesn’t want to do.”

Winston, the GOP strategist, acknowledged that “the vice president didn’t get this done.”

“But as a former House [Republican] Conference chairman, he has the skill set,” Winston said. “He’ll have a role if they try again. And he’ll get called in on other tough things, too.”

Rema Rahman and Erin Mershon contributed to this report.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.