Just 2 1 / 2 weeks into his tenure, Vice President Pence did something that his predecessor Joe Biden never did in eight years: He cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate.
The Constitution assigns only two real responsibilities to the vice presidency: breaking Senate ties and assuming the presidency should the president leave office. Shortly after noon Tuesday, for the first time since the spring of 2008, the Senate was deadlocked 50-50, on a vote to confirm Betsy DeVos as education secretary, and Pence cast his first vote in the Senate after two of the 52 Republicans joined all 48 members of the Democratic caucus in voting against the nominee.
Yet Pence’s most important activity came next, walking into his now regular Tuesday luncheon with Senate Republicans in his role as President Trump’s highest profile set of eyes and ears on Capitol Hill.
A member of the House for 12 years before serving as Indiana governor, Pence has expanded his portfolio in the Senate well beyond awaiting the increasingly unusual tie votes. He has emerged as a key ally to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
At McConnell’s invitation, Pence attends the weekly policy lunch on Tuesdays inside the Mansfield Room, just a few steps off the Senate floor, resuming a tradition that Richard B. Cheney kept over his eight years as the last Republican vice president. There, Pence has shown a willingness to talk with members and take questions, a contrast to how Cheney approached his role.
“He didn’t do much talking,” Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), the No. 2 Republican leader, recalled of Cheney, who tended to take a seat at a table off to the side and quietly talk to any senators with questions.
Cornyn added that “Pence is much more gregarious.”
He’s not quick to leave, either. “And you know he is available to talk to individuals when that’s over, as a rule, and I think that will serve him well,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), also a member of the GOP leadership.
What remains to be seen is whether Pence has true clout in a West Wing that seems to thrive off competing power centers. It will always be helpful to have the vice president relaying his intelligence from Capitol Hill back to Trump and his top advisers, but true power comes in shaping the final outcome of decisions.
During his House tenure, Pence wasn’t particularly influential. The former radio talk-show host was always known more for communication skills than policy chops. But he was generally well liked and trusted, developing long-standing friendships with rabble-rousers who now hold powerful posts, particularly Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).
But Pence’s early kinship with the Senate could pay even more dividends for the administration.
Last week, he served as the lead escort for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch to Wednesday meetings with McConnell and other senior Republicans. About a third of the Senate served in the House with Pence, including Blunt and several other members of McConnell’s leadership team.
It’s a much more direct approach than Biden took after serving 36 years in the Senate. He and Harry M. Reid, the majority leader in 2009, both thought it was inappropriate to have the vice president sitting in on Senate Democrats’ weekly strategy sessions.
So Biden took a more traditional role of roving elder statesman, working the phones to his old colleagues and hosting them at the vice president’s home at the Naval Observatory.
But Biden and Cheney both served presidents who came from within the political system and spoke the same language, understanding the intricacies of how difficult the Senate could be to overcome.
Not Trump, who just a few days into office was already calling for McConnell to blow up the chamber’s filibuster rules to confirm Gorsuch.
Just before his inauguration, Trump suggested in a Washington Post interview that he was on the verge of releasing his own health-care plan. Then, in a weekend interview with Fox News Channel, the president suggested that it could take well more than a year to replace the Affordable Care Act.
“I think it’s really indispensable,” Cornyn said of Pence’s work, “because there are so many opportunities for miscommunication or no communication between the executive branch and Congress.”
Republicans could be forgiven if they suffered whiplash during back-to-back appearances at the policy retreat in Philadelphia late last month. Trump delivered a free-form performance that jumped all over the map, leaving after 25 minutes and not taking questions. Pence followed with a steady, hand-chopping 20-minute speech that began with a rousing set of thank-yous to his hosts and ended with a stern, prayerful story about Ronald Reagan, and he then took 20 minutes of questions from the rank and file.
Even Democrats don’t mind having Pence around so much. Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del.) said Trump’s “propensity for alternative facts” might mean the vice president has to translate: “Mike Pence could probably come over, clearly as anybody, and say: This is what’s really going on.”
But history measures a vice president’s power more on his ability to help shape a president’s decisions than how many friends he has on Capitol Hill. Early on, with the slew of executive orders Trump is signing, the power seems to reside with senior West Wing advisers, particularly his chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon.
Unlike those aides, however, Pence is a constitutional officer and has the same four-year term as Trump. Strategists tend to come and go, and Republicans think that Pence’s credibility will be key to truly big successes like legislative victories on health care.
“I think he’s an incredibly valuable part of what can happen here,” Blunt said, noting Pence’s political utility in reassuring traditional Republicans of Trump’s candidacy and now his presidency. “I think the president realizes what an important decision this was in terms of rallying conservatives and main-street Republicans around him.”