Ne­go­ti­at­ing on Trump’s be­half puts Pence in a bind

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - NATION+WORLD - By Jill Colvin, Lisa Mas­caro and Lau­rie Kell­man

Progress made, said one. Not so, said the other. We’ll meet again, said one.

Waste of time, said the other.

Such has been the life lately of Mike Pence, the loyal soldier dis­patched by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump to lead ne­go­ti­a­tions over the par­tial gov­ern­ment shutdown .

The vice pres­i­dent has been one of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s most vis­i­ble emis­saries dur­ing the shutdown fight, meet­ing with law­mak­ers, sit­ting for in­ter­views and lead­ing stafflevel talks. But he’s been repeatedly — and very pub­licly — un­der­mined and con­tra­dicted by his boss, who’s de­mand­ing bil­lions from Congress to build a wall along the south­ern bor­der.

Law­mak­ers and aides in both par­ties say it’s be­come in­creas­ingly clear that, in this White House, no one speaks for the pres­i­dent but him­self, leav­ing Pence in an all-but-im­pos­si­ble po­si­tion as he tries to ne­go­ti­ate on Trump’s be­half.

“He doesn’t re­ally have the au­thor­ity to make a deal,” said Repub­li­can Rep. Mike Simp­son of Idaho, who worked along­side Pence back when Pence was a mem­ber of Congress. He said leg­is­la­tors re­spect the vice pres­i­dent even if he is just “the mes­sen­ger.” But he adds: “Trump is the one who’s go­ing to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”

Even be­fore the shutdown be­gan, Pence was in an awk­ward spot in the wall de­bate — quite lit­er­ally. When Trump hosted then-in­com­ing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen­ate Demo­cratic leader Chuck Schumer at a heated Oval Of­fice meet­ing in De­cem­ber that ended with the pres­i­dent say­ing he’d be “proud” to own a gov­ern­ment shutdown, a stone­faced Pence sat by, speech­less in his chair, draw­ing quips on so­cial me­dia com­par­ing him to a statue or the “Elf on the Shelf.”

Trump later sent Pence to lead a week­end of bud­get talks with staff for Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic con­gres­sional lead­ers, an ef­fort that Democrats dis­missed as lit­tle more than a pub­lic-re­la­tions ef­fort by the White House to give the im­pres­sion it was work­ing to end the im­passe. Some also saw Pence’s meetings with leg­isla­tive staffers as un­be­fit­ting of his ti­tle.

When the first ne­go­ti­a­tion ses­sion ended that Satur­day, Pence tweeted: “Pro­duc­tive dis­cus­sion.”

An hour later, Trump coun­tered: “Not much head­way made.”

The next morn­ing, as Pence was set to re­turn to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble, Trump again threw cold wa­ter on the ef­fort.

“I don’t ex­pect to have any­thing hap­pen at that meet­ing ... nor does the vice pres­i­dent,” Trump told re­porters. “Ul­ti­mately, it’s go­ing to be solved by the prin­ci­pals.”

Al­lies of the vice pres­i­dent min­i­mized the sig­nif­i­cance of the com­ments and the White House de­nied any fric­tion.

“The vice pres­i­dent has been very ef­fec­tive in com­mu­ni­cat­ing on be­half of the ad­min­is­tra­tion,” said White House spokes­woman Sarah Huck­abee Sanders. “He has been in lock step with the pres­i­dent through­out the en­tire process.”

Pence, too, re­jected the idea that he’d been un­der­mined by the pres­i­dent or had dif­fi­culty build­ing trust on Capi­tol Hill be­cause of Trump’s ten­dency to change his mind.

He de­scribed to re­porters an of­fer he brought to Schumer from the pres­i­dent on the Satur­day be­fore Christ­mas to try to cut a deal.

“I didn’t have any im­pres­sion that whole week that they doubted that it was a le­git­i­mate of­fer,” said Pence. He would not con­firm the de­tails, but it was un­der­stood to have low­ered the pres­i­dent’s de­mand for $5.7 bil­lion to build the wall to $2.5 bil­lion.

Democrats panned the of­fer.

Days later, Trump re­jected it, too,

“No, not 2.5,” Trump told re­porters. “We’re ask­ing for 5.6. And, you know, some­body said 2.5. No.”

With ne­go­ti­a­tions now at a stand­still, Pence has been a fre­quent vis­i­tor to the Capi­tol, fo­cused on try­ing to keep jit­tery Re­pub­li­cans from break­ing with Trump.

The vice pres­i­dent is well known in Congress, hav­ing climbed the lad­der as the leader of a con­ser­va­tive fac­tion to serve as chair­man of the House GOP con­fer­ence be­fore run­ning for gov­er­nor of In­di­ana. That back­ground was among the rea­sons Trump, who ar­rived in Washington with no gov­ern­ment ex­pe­ri­ence, chose Pence as his run­ning mate.

Marc Lot­ter, a for­mer Pence spokesman who re­mains an out­side ad­viser, said Pence “of­ten gets called in if we’re get­ting close to the fin­ish line to see if we can bring in a cou­ple of last votes” or hold onto those who may be wa­ver­ing. He re­called Pence, dur­ing a health care fight, “work­ing back and forth, tak­ing ideas and try­ing to find areas where there could be agree­ment, look­ing for areas where there could be com­pro­mise.”

While Pence lacks the per­sonal re­la­tion­ships with Schumer and Pelosi that some of his pre­de­ces­sors had with opposition lead­ers— no­tably Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den’s relationship with Sen­ate Re­pub­li­cans — Lot­ter said Pence meets reg­u­larly with mem­bers of both par­ties and both cham­bers, hosting law­mak­ers at his res­i­dence for reg­u­lar din­ners.

Marc Short, the for­mer White House di­rec­tor of leg­isla­tive af­fairs who pre­vi­ously served as Pence’s chief of staff, said the vice pres­i­dent’s mea­sured man­ner has been a “com­ple­ment” to Trump’s very dif­fer­ent style.

He pointed to ef­forts dur­ing the “Oba­macare” re­peal ef­fort to sway Sen. Su­san Collins, R-Maine, known for tak­ing her time to weigh de­ci­sions. Pence worked pa­tiently to an­swer her ques­tions.

In­deed, “lis­tener” was a word that came up of­ten when law­mak­ers were asked to de­scribe Pence.

“He’s a good lis­tener,” said Sen. Rob Port­man, ROhio. “Which is a rare qual­ity around here.”

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