WASHINGTON (AP) — When Mike Pence landed in Congress after the 2000 election, he was a conservative agitator who often bucked President George W. Bush’s agenda. Seventeen years later, he’s the vice president-elect and Donald Trump’s inside man on Capitol Hill.
Pence, who spent a dozen years in Congress before becoming Indiana’s governor, is visiting frequently with lawmakers and promising close coordination after Trump’s inauguration Friday. In a sign of his attentiveness, Pence will have an office in the House as well as the traditional honorary office for the vice president in the Senate.
Pence’s role takes on greater importance, given Trump’s ascension to the White House without any experience in elective office.
Trump has few long-standing political alliances in Congress and a strained relationship with the Republican establishment, a hangover from the 2016 campaign. Trump’s agenda doesn’t always align with Republicans’ priorities, and his inflammatory remarks about immigrants, Muslims and women made many in the GOP cringe.
Pence has forged an enduring friendship with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., dating to their early years in Congress, along with other House Republicans crucial to advancing Trump’s agenda. In early meetings with lawmakers, Pence has passed out his personal cellphone number and promised an open line to the administration.
“He’s the trusted intermediary. He’s the person that people on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue know and trust,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.
If Trump is known for his brash form of disruptive politics, Pence represents the incoming administration in a more traditional manner, exemplified by his polite, Midwestern demeanor. He joined Trump in New York on Wednesday for the president-elect’s first news conference since the Nov. 8 election. Pence soon returned to Capitol Hill for meetings with several senators, including Democrats Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Tim Kaine of Virginia. The latter was Hillary Clinton’s running mate and Pence’s adversary in October’s vice president debate.
“Opportunities to work together on issues like infrastructure and child care we think represent a significant chance to bring together leaders in both political parties,” Pence said after meeting with Kaine.
Pence’s early days in Washington were marked more by his role as a conservative purist than deal-maker.
He opposed the Bush administration on issues such as the president’s No Child Left Behind education law and an overhaul of Medicare that provided new prescription drug coverage in 2003. Pence was a leading conservative voice, often arguing that the Republican administration had strayed from conservative principles and had failed to curb federal spending.
After Republicans were swept from power in the 2006 elections, Pence unsuccessfully challenged Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, to become minority leader. Two years later, Boehner backed Pence’s entry into the leadership team, elevating the Indiana congressman to chairman of the House GOP conference, the party’s No. 3 post.
One of the ways Pence built lasting ties with fellow lawmakers was through Bible study.
Pence often joined Ryan, House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, and Georgia Rep. Tom Price, Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, for weekly Bible study sessions. House Republicans say those are the types of interactions that will help him in Trump’s administration.
“Mike Pence is a House man. He cares about us and he will make sure that we are in the loop,” said Rep. Jack Carter, R-Texas, who also attended Bible study with Pence.
By having an office in the House along with the ceremonial one in the Senate for his role as the chamber’s president, Pence will follow a path set by Vice President Dick Cheney, a former Wyoming congressman who maintained a House office during the Bush presidency.
Pence’s conservative record gives rank-and-file Democrats few reasons to be hopeful that he could be a bipartisan deal-maker on Trump’s behalf.
Planned Parenthood, for example, mobilized after Ryan said he planned to strip federal dollars from their organization as part of repeal of Obama’s health care law. The organization pointed to Pence’s anti-abortion record and history of seeking to block federal dollars from the health care provider as one of the reasons for the quick GOP push.
“Mike Pence’s fingerprints are all over that,” said Dawn Laguens, Planned Parenthood’s executive vice president.
But Pence has tried to build some bridges.
When Manchin, a centrist Democrat facing re-election next year, called incoming Trump White House adviser Katie Walsh in early January to request a meeting with Pence, the senator found himself face to face with Pence only a few hours later. They exchanged cellphone numbers and Manchin again sat down with Pence on Wednesday for a discussion that included the Supreme Court vacancy and federal judicial appointments.
“My job is going to be trying to find pathways forward — how do you find a way to fix things, repair things and make things happen? So you’ve got to build these relationships,” Manchin said.
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