Vice President Cheney was meeting with House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. at a time the Wisconsin Republican was holding up the administration's intelligence bill, and most lawmakers assumed it was a heavy arm-twisting session.
Instead, according to a party official familiar with the conversation, Cheney shot the breeze about Badger State politics, the history of their relationship and the outlook for the bill.
"The vice president said, 'What's going on, Jim?' " the official said. "And Jim told him the whole story and the vice president just listened and was very attentive and expressed some empathy to Sensenbrenner's position and some philosophical alliance with what he wanted to get done."
Cheney suggested a solution to Sensenbrenner's objection to the bill's immigration provisions, and the chairman eventually agreed to support the legislation.
Administration and Capitol Hill aides pointed to the moment as a sign of the crucial role that Cheney will play for President Bush in coming months as the White House tries to persuade Congress to pass a restructuring of Social Security that has many Republicans feeling queasy about the potential political consequences.
Given the broadest authority of any vice president in history, Cheney has exercised it aggressively but nearly invisibly. He assiduously avoided the spotlight in Bush's first term -- unless he was campaigning -- both because of his personality and because he did not want to overshadow the boss. His Cold War instincts made him the butt of jokes after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when he always seemed to be in what his staff called a "secure, undisclosed location" to preserve the top echelon of the government in case of another attack.
Now, administration officials say that Cheney will become increasingly visible as he lobbies for Bush's agenda and begins the White House's push on behalf of midterm congressional candidates, who will start raising money soon. The two jobs are even intertwined, one friend said.
"It's part of the carrot and stick," the friend said. "He can tell Republicans who are threatening to defect on a vote that he will come to their districts. And he can tell Democrats, 'I could come to your district, or I could go to somebody else's district.' "
The vice president constitutionally serves as the president of the Senate who votes only to break a tie. Although he has no official role in the House, Cheney has an affinity there because he was elected five times as the lone representative from Wyoming, serving from 1977 to 1989. Cheney had the distinction of never losing a vote as House minority whip, because no vote was taken between the time GOP colleagues elected him and President George H.W. Bush asked him to be defense secretary for the period that would include the Persian Gulf War.
So Cheney is fluent in the Hill, which has often seemed like a foreign language to George W. Bush's administration. "The White House usually bullies Republicans to get what they want, which is okay -- that's what the pulpit's all about," a House leadership aide said. "But Cheney brings a level of realism to their strategic plan that is very useful to the president."
House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said Cheney "works incredibly well with our members because he totally understands the world the way members of the House look at it."
"He understands what members have to explain when they go home and how they have to explain it," Blunt said. "He is just extraordinarily good at sitting down at a table with other members of Congress. He immediately becomes a wise and trusted colleague, rather than somebody from somewhere else."
Lawmakers also fear him. While he is known around the White House as "the vice president," he is known on the Hill as "Cheney," and one lawmaker referred to him as "the real woodshed."
When Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) was new as Senate majority leader and cut a deal to change the amount of Bush's proposed tax cut without consulting the House or the White House, Cheney went to the chamber to break what was expected to be a tie vote and gently but unmistakably rebuked Frist, according to aides.
"Cheney put his hand up and waved Frist over, and Frist went running over," a Republican aide recalled. "And Cheney said to Frist, 'How do you think I ought to vote on this?' And Frist looked at him with disbelief and said, 'Mr. President, I think you should vote yes -- this is the tax bill.' And Cheney said, 'I'm not sure I can.' " The aide said that was Cheney's way of "very subtly and very quietly sending Frist a message that he had screwed up royally."
Administration officials said Cheney, who will turn 64 the week after the inauguration, has found a variety of creative ways to exercise his private power. He has built a large policy staff so that he has his own experts, separate from those whose mission is to serve the president, and his national security shop helped bolster Bush's appetite for invading Iraq.
For Bush II, veterans of Cheney-world are spread even further, giving him even deeper tentacles throughout the government. For instance, Bush's new chief lobbyist, or legislative affairs director, is Candi Wolff, who used to be Cheney's chief congressional liaison.
Mary Matalin was not replaced after she left as Cheney's counselor at the end of 2002, but her title has now been bestowed on one of the more combative Bush-Cheney officials, Steve Schmidt, who will join the vice president's operation after the inauguration.
Administration officials said Cheney's evolution to a more public role reflects both Bush's increased confidence and the vice president's vindication as a clear benefit to the reelection ticket, both as a prodigious fundraiser and tireless barnstormer.
As Bush aides begin thinking about the president's legacy, they have a new term for Cheney -- "a consequential vice president." Last week, when the White House unveiled a new argument for Bush's plan to add personal accounts to Social Security -- that it would help poorer people, who do not now benefit from compound interest -- the message was delivered in an address by Cheney.