Donald Trump and Mike Pence enter the Oval Office yesterday for the swearing-in of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.
THE BIG IDEA: Mike Pence is the un-Trump. Serving the first president in American history who has no prior political or military experience, the vice president’s background makes him well suited to sell Donald Trump’s policies. Perhaps because he has been in their shoes, he has already proven adept at connecting with and reassuring conservative members of Congress, governors and talk radio hosts.
The last few days have brought several illustrations of the important role he will likely play in the administration. Two Republican senators, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, came out yesterday against the nomination of Betsy DeVos to be secretary of education. That means, if Democrats stick together, she’ll end up with a 50-50 vote. That would make Pence the first vice president in U.S. history to use his tie-breaking vote to confirm a cabinet nominee.
-- Apart from his limited constitutional responsibilities, Trump is depending on Pence to be his clean-up guy on the Hill. During a private lunch with GOP senators on Tuesday, Pence sought to soothe concerns about the botched rollout of the refugee ban. He gave his word that the White House will do a better job of keeping members in the loop going forward, especially on major policy announcements.
This is an incredibly delicate moment in the Capitol. Republicans who are wise, including Mitch McConnell, do not want to invoke the nuclear option. Smart conservatives understand that changing the rules of the Senate to allow for a simple majority to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominee would set a disastrous precedent, which would invariably be used to put hyper-liberal justices onto the high court in future years. Even talking about going this route poisons the well and makes it that much harder to woo the eight moderate Democrats needed to clear the current 60-vote threshold.
But Trump, who is all about instant gratification, has never grappled with James Madison’s conception of the Senate as a saucer to cool hot tea. Yesterday morning, as Pence escorted Neil Gorsuch to his first meetings on the Hill, Trump lobbed a bomb by publicly urging Republican leaders to tear up the rules of the Senate. “I would say, ‘If you can, Mitch, go nuclear,’” Trump told reporters at the White House. “I would say it’s up to Mitch, but I would say, ‘Go for it!’”
Republican senators, so pumped about Trump’s pick the night before, found themselves once again peeved at the president. “It’d be better to let it cool for a while,” said Orrin Hatch, the president pro tempore. “I don’t think it’s going to be necessary,” added John Cornyn, number two in GOP leadership.
In the face of much more negative private complaints, Pence went on TV to walk back what Trump had said. He told the PBS “NewsHour” that the White House would like to get Gorsuch confirmed without the nuclear option. “I’m hopeful he doesn’t,” Pence said, referring to McConnell changing the rules.
The White House has also booked Pence on three of this weekend’s Sunday shows: Meet the Press, Face the Nation and Fox News Sunday.
-- Pence is the Koch network’s conduit into the administration. The most striking takeaway from my three days covering the Koch donor seminar in California earlier this week is the degree to which donors and others in the powerful network see Pence as their man in the administration.
Marc Short went from being Pence’s chief of staff in the House to leading political operations for the Koch network. Now he’s the head of legislative affairs for the White House. Pence also just hired Koch network staffer Stephen Ford to serve as his chief speechwriter.
The Kochs have been longtime boosters of criminal justice reform. They came pretty close to getting a major bill passed in the last Congress, but it fell apart because of election-year squabbling. On paper, the odds of getting it done now are dramatically lower. Incoming Attorney General Jeff Sessions voted against a bipartisan bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, and Trump ran on a platform of law and order.
But top Koch officials and their closest allies insist that they’re not giving up, in part, because they think Pence will help make it into an administration priority. “The reason we’re optimistic is really Mike Pence,” said Texas investor Doug Deason, a Koch network benefactor. “If you think Cheney had power in the Bush White House, just watch and see what happens with Mike Pence!”
-- Pence is also the go-to guy for governors. He just moved to the Naval Observatory after four years in the Indiana executive mansion, so he can relate to the challenges that governors face.
Scott Walker said yesterday that, during a meeting at the White House this past weekend, Pence asked him about his 2011 move to curtail collective bargaining rights for public workers in Wisconsin. The governor said he and Pence talked about “how they may take bits and pieces of what we did with Act 10 and with civil service reform, and how they could apply that at the national level” for federal workers, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “It's something that they're interested in. The vice president has brought it up before,” Walker told a Rotary Club. “It's certainly something we're willing to offer our assistance on.”
During a panel discussion on federalism at the Koch seminar, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey recalled a meeting with Trump last summer. “Both he and Hillary were talking as if each of them would be the better leader or manager of the big federal bureaucracy,” the Republican said. “I said, ‘Hey … why don’t you push all this stuff back to the states and focus on defense and foreign policy?’” Asked if Trump was receptive, he ducked a little: “When he picked Mike Pence as V.P., he told us a lot!” That prompted sustained applause from the 550 donors who have each committed to give at least $100,000-per-year to support the Koch network.
The White House also announced last night that Pence has hired Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's chief of staff to become his communications director. Snyder helped navigate Detroit through bankruptcy, but his star faded with the lead poisoning scandal in Flint. “Jarrod helped guide our team through times of crisis," Snyder said in an effusive statement to the Detroit Free Press.
-- Members of the House have relationships with Pence from his 12 years there. Many conservatives who still view Trump warily express confidence that the replacement plan for Obamacare will turn out okay because Pence is so closely involved. Incoming HHS secretary Tom Price, who will be the point person on ACA replacement, has no personal relationship with Trump, but he’s good friends with Pence from their time on the Hill.
Lawmakers also express hope that, because Pence was once the chair of the House Republican Conference, he will ensure that rank-and-file members get included in the process. “It very much appears to me, particularly given that Mike Pence comes from the House, that we will have the central role as we ought to as the legislative body in driving legislation,” said Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.).
-- Social conservatives see him as one of their own. No one questions Pence’s bona fides. Unlike Trump, he can very naturally speak the language of the conservative movement because it’s his native tongue. The self-described “evangelical Catholic” is a hero among anti-abortion activists. As governor, he signed some of the strictest laws on abortion in the country.
Last Friday Pence became the first vice president ever to address the annual March for Life since it began four decades ago. He touted the president’s executive order to reinstate the so-called Mexico City policy and pledged that Planned Parenthood will be defunded. “Life is winning again in America,” he said, getting a rock star’s reception.
Yesterday afternoon, the 57-year-old called into Limbaugh’s show to tout Gorsuch. He also defended Trump’s proposed infrastructure package, which many conservatives see as a boondoggle, and reiterated the promise to repeal Obamacare ASAP.
Speaking in a very different tone than he did with Judy Woodruff on PBS around the same time, the V.P. griped that the new administration has not received the “honeymoon” period that every previous administration has in his lifetime. “Boy, if there was a honeymoon, it was pretty short, Rush,” Pence said.
He also decried the mainstream media for running “fake news” to bring Trump down. “I think it’s one of the reasons people cherish and appreciate your voice in the national debate,” Pence told Limbaugh. “Because when they hear it on Rush Limbaugh, they know it’s a fact! They know it’s coming straight at ’em, and they know it’s backed up by the truth.”