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A Friendly Face: Pence Deployed to Governors

Former Indiana governor knows the crowd well

Vice President Mike Pence, seen here on Capitol Hill on Tuesday with Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, will address health care, education and infrastructure at the NGA conference in Rhode Island on Friday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Vice President Mike Pence, seen here on Capitol Hill on Tuesday with Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, will address health care, education and infrastructure at the NGA conference in Rhode Island on Friday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Vice President Mike Pence on Friday will continue his quiet campaign as the Trump administration’s ultimate inside player when he tries to convince governors to view President Donald Trump as a partner on issues such as health care and infrastructure.

With Trump in France participating in that country’s Bastille Day festivities, Pence is being deployed to the National Governors Association conference in Rhode Island. It will be a familiar role for Pence, a former Indiana chief executive, who also is a former House GOP leader who meets weekly with his congressional colleagues.

Several former governors say it is rare for any White House to send either a president or vice president to the NGA’s summer meeting, adding it signals the extent to which the Trump administration wants to build partnerships with state leaders.

Pence is expected to receive a warmer welcome than what Trump might have garnered. The president, a former New York-based businessman and reality television star, has few relationships with state leaders, and is also embroiled in a Russia scandal that seems to metastasize by the day.

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The vice president’s message will be carefully crafted around the kinds of issues on which governors focus each day, reflecting his decades of political experience. His appearance at the conference could be key to garnering buy-in for GOP state leaders on a still-emerging Republican plan to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law, as well as convincing Democratic governors to partner with the Trump administration on issues such as education and infrastructure.

Those three issues will be the central parts of Pence’s message, said a senior aide to the vice president. Each one is an issue on which “the administration is looking to partner with the states,” the senior aide said.

“As a former governor, the vice president knows that states are a laboratory of innovation, especially in areas like health care,” the senior aide added. “The president’s plan will provide flexibility to the states to tailor their own programs to meet the needs of their residents, while also innovating ways to deliver better coverage at reduced cost.”

That part of Pence’s message could be a key point to some governors who have expressed concerns that the House-passed health care bill and the emerging Senate measure would slash Medicaid funding on which their residents depend.

“This is something the vice president knows well from his service as a governor, when he received a waiver from the federal government to expand the Healthy Indiana Plan,” the senior aide added.

That was a reference to a 2015 agreement between then-Gov. Pence and the Obama administration that allowed Indiana to accept federal funds under the 2010 health care law while also trying a Medicaid expansion plan unique to the Hoosier State.

“It’s hard to take something away from somebody once they’ve got it,” said Mike Beebe, a former Democratic governor of Arkansas. “The fact that he took [the federal funds] makes it doubly hard to argue about taking it away. … It’s just, politically, a nonstarter for a lot of people.”

‘We’re in a mess’

The vice president will also likely cause GOP and Democratic ears to perk up when he mentions Trump’s intention, as the aide described it, to “return power to the states in areas like education and infrastructure.”

The former governors who discussed Pence’s NGA speech with Roll Call had plenty of suggestions for policy issues the vice president could talk about.

But Beebe said it would be positive if Pence talks about fostering “bipartisanship and civility — that can’t be overemphasized.”

“We’re in a mess,” he said. “And it’s societal.”

Jim Douglas, a former GOP chief executive in Vermont, echoed the call for a bipartisan message. He also said Pence will address the governors at a time when many states are facing several problems on issues ranging from health care to higher education to topics unique to rural areas.

“I also hope he’ll talk about the roles of the states” based on his own “experiences in leading a state,” Douglas said.

Steven L. Beshear, a former Democratic governor of Kentucky, said the vice president should push Trump’s desired infrastructure overhaul plan. He and other former state leaders say states are eager for federal help in upgrading the country’s roads, bridges, ports and other structures key to the economy.

“One issue you could find bipartisan support is infrastructure in our country,” Beshear said. “Talking about a joint program, a federal-state relationship, would be something that both Republican and Democratic governors would be on board with — and it might bring some much-needed unity that might flow over into a willingness to talk about other issues.”

Some, including former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, believe an infrastructure package, for the Trump administration, “politically … would have been a better start.”

“Then deal with something as divisive as health care,” she said from the Bipartisan Policy Center headquarters in the nation’s capital, where the former state executives had gathered for a meeting of the think tank’s Governors’ Council.

Former GOP governors say a big part of Pence’s speech should focus on transferring power from the federal to state governments. Former Democratic state leaders say he should hit health care hard. 

“The framers split the atom of sovereignty and called it federalism,” Beebe said. “Governors are concerned about unfunded mandates from Washington, which adversely impacts the split atom. … Anything he addresses on that and if he is sensitive to that, would be extremely well-received.”

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John Feehery, a GOP political strategist, said Pence should use his remarks to the state executives to “call for a new federalism that allows the states maximum flexibility to run their affairs without federal mandates — but with the understanding that the federal government can’t be in the business of bailing out the states for their bad decisions.”

On the issues the senior Pence aide said the vice president plans to discuss, Feheery said his message should be: “The federal government shouldn’t put unfunded mandates on the States, but states shouldn’t raise taxes on their constituents and then expect the federal government to pay for those tax increases by giving their constituents a federal tax deduction.”

Oh, Canada

Pence will get to try out his under-construction foreign policy chops on Friday when he meets with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is also attending the conference.

Pence’s role on the global stage has taken on a surprisingly similar one to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. For instance, Pence has attended security conferences in Europe and Asia, and held private talks and meetings with leaders from countries such as Greece, Cyprus, and El Salvador, which failed to make Trump’s schedule.

The Trudeau meeting comes amid tensions between Trump and the Canadian leader around several trade issues. In Pence, Trudeau will find a public figure who speaks more like a seasoned politician than does the bombastic and blunt Trump. Their talks could nudge forward the process of Trump’s desire to do some surgery to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which the U.S. president has called a “disaster.”

It also could start to heal any wounds opened by Trump’s tough talk about Canadian trade practices, which some experts have warned could start the most unlikeliest of trade wars.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House principal deputy press secretary, told reporters this week that Pence is expected to bring up “immigration, security, and trade — including renegotiating NAFTA.”

In a July 7 statement about his coming meetings with U.S. governors, Trudeau made clear trade will very much be on the agenda.

“Ever more integrated supply chains draw our economies closer together, bringing jobs and prosperity to Canadians and Americans alike,” Trudeau said. “I will continue to work with all orders of the U.S. government to create good, middle class jobs on both sides of the border, and to find solutions to the challenges we face together.”

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