Vice President Mike Pence has spent countless hours behind closed doors with congressional Republicans negotiating on health care and other issues, yet the GOP legislative agenda has largely stalled. But Republican lawmakers are not blaming President Donald Trump’s Capitol Hill “insider” — quite the contrary, in fact.
Pence, once part of the House GOP leadership team, was billed as Trump’s get-things-done guy. So far, the vice president’s appreciable legislative accomplishments are scant. He broke several ties in his capacity as president of the Senate and worked with fellow Republicans on unsuccessful efforts to pass a health care overhaul measure that would get rid of Barack Obama’s 2010 law.
House and Senate Republicans across the spectrum were eager to shield the VP from criticism last week after a second Republican-crafted health care bill failed in the Senate. Republican lawmakers see Pence as one of their own, both due to his decade-plus of House service and because his political ideology aligns more with theirs than does Trump’s.
“Mike is the perfect bridge between the House, the Senate and the White House,” Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin said when asked to assess Pence’s role. Senate leaders shelved a vote on the health care bill after their Tuesday policy lunch. GOP senators said Pence did not push for a last-ditch effort on the measure. “That’s just a tough issue. We’re disappointed [here] in the House that they couldn’t get this thing over the finish line,” Ryan said.
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Though Pence has yet to hand Trump a big legislative win, the president often praises him in public. During a Wednesday speech on taxes in Pence’s home state of Indiana, the president hailed him as a “very, very terrific person and terrific vice president.”
Yet Trump took it upon himself to strike a deal earlier in September to avoid a government shutdown and a default on the federal debt. And when the president huddled Thursday at the White House with two key senators on health care, Pence was on the road.
In a series of interviews after a health care bill offered by Sens. Lindsey Graham and Bills Cassidy was put aside Tuesday afternoon, GOP leaders and rank-and-file members offered nothing but praise for Pence.
Lawmakers called Pence a courier or repairman who can’t be tasked with fixing everything. One labeled him the most effective vice president in three decades when it comes to pulling together the often-fractious GOP conference.
Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus clashed with the Trump administration the first time the White House and GOP leaders attempted to pass a health care overhaul bill in that chamber. But the group’s chairman last week had nothing but rave reviews for Pence, who led negotiations on the Hill for the White House.
“This is not a defeat of Vice President Pence or the president. This is a defeat of the Senate — let the blame lie totally within that institution,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said. “He worked like a yeoman to try to get it done, so I hold him certainly not at all responsible for this.”
Asked if he believed the responsibility for the health care bill failure lies with Senate GOP leadership, the North Carolina Republican scurried onto the House floor for a vote: “I’ll let comments on Senate leadership rest in the upper chamber.”
Rep. Mark Sanford, another member of the Freedom Caucus and one of the few members in the GOP conference who is publicly critical of the Trump administration, laid blame for the failed negotiations on the chief executive.
“The president seems easily distracted and not all that focused on the details of health care [and] tax reform — but the details really matter in moving legislation,” the South Carolina Republican said. “What matters is well-sustained pressure over time.”
Sanford said mixed signals out of the White House also don’t help the president advance his legislative agenda.
In May, the House passed a measure to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law after the administration spent weeks wrangling various factions of House Republicans for their votes. Republicans secured a narrow 217-213 passage, with 20 Republicans joining all 193 Democrats in the ‘no’ column.
After all that work, Trump later called the measure his own administration lobbied for “mean.”
“Everybody is somewhat befuddled and confused and like, well, I thought that’s what they wanted?” Sanford said.
Fresh off another defeat on health care — repealing the law was a major part of Trump’s and congressional Republicans’ 2016 campaign messaging — the closest Senate Republicans would come to even suggesting anything negative about the VP was to dart into a hearing room (Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho) or a senators-only elevator (Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee) without answering.
Sanford, too, would not pin Congress’ failure to pass a health care bill or other major legislation on the former Indiana governor.
“He’s [a] courier, he’s a messenger, he’s a repairman,” Sanford said. “But it’s going to take more than a courier or repairman to move major pieces of legislation however able they may be in that task.”
Pence and Senate Republican leaders fell one vote short in July of passing a bill to partially repeal and replace the 2010 health care law. Last week on the Graham-Cassidy measure they were shy a few more. But the VP cannot be blamed for either outcome, lawmakers say.
“Those are tough votes to get,” Flake said. “He’s spent a lot of time here. He’s doing the best he can.”
The junior senator from Arizona has been in Washington since he was a freshman congressman in 2001. But GOP Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma has been here since taking over a House seat in 1987 — and he said the 48th VP was the most involved and effective one he has observed in that span.
“Every Tuesday, he’s there. I don’t think he’s missed one [Senate GOP caucus] lunch,” Inhofe said last week. “And he participates. I can remember when it was Dick Cheney as the vice president. [Cheney] would come a lot of the time, but he would never say anything. I mean, this guy is right in the middle of it.”
The veteran lawmaker described Pence’s role behind closed doors as, in part, “kind of offsetting some of the rough edges of the president.” Still, Inhofe said Trump’s No. 2 “may have to take some of the hits for the lack of success, but nonetheless, he’s active — and I think he’s effective.”
Inhofe has seen ample drama on the House and Senate floors during his career. He says McCain’s early morning thumbs-down vote in July on an earlier Senate health care bill was a surprise that no one — not even the “effective” Pence — could see coming. “You’re talking about a person who did something that was totally unexpected,” he said. “It didn’t follow any trend or anything.”
In explaining the challenge Pence faces in wrangling votes and twisting arms, Inhofe also highlighted what the vice president has yet to pull off: “If you bring those two tough votes in, you’re going to lose two or three on the other side.”