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GOP Looks To Pence As Trump's Point Man On Capitol Hill

Vice president-elect Mike Pence waves as he leaves a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

One way Republicans on Capitol Hill say they know becoming the vice president-elect hasn't changed Mike Pence: He hasn't changed his phone number.

Pence recently met with House Republicans in a closed door session where, "He said, 'Most of you have my cell phone,' which he found out after the election," laughed Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., one of Trump's earliest allies in Congress. "He wants to encourage us to continue to reach out to him," Barletta added.

Pence's accessibility is a comfort to Republicans, who still view President-elect Donald Trump as a wild-card. When he takes the oath of office in January, Trump will be the most politically inexperienced man to ever enter the Oval Office. Trump has never served in government or had to cut a legislative deal.

But Pence is a familiar face on Capitol Hill, where he served for 12 years before becoming Indiana governor. At the same meeting, Pence told Republicans that while his role in Congress is now as president of the Senate, his heart remains in the House.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fl., said Trump adding Pence to the ticket assuaged a lot of concerns early on. "I think that gave us a lot of us such a sense of comfort," he said.

Trump indicated early on that he'd like his vice president to be a legislative point man for his administration. Pence can work out the mundane, granular details of the legislative process and Trump will make the final calls.

That arrangement sits well with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. "We all really like Mike Pence, if you ask any of us who served with him, everyone likes him," he told reporters recently.

McConnell said he would like Pence to follow the example set by former Vice President Dick Cheney, who spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill during the Bush era. Cheney "was a classic guy who didn't necessary say anything all the time, but he was like a sponge absorbing what our concerns were and he acted almost like President Bush's Senate liaison," McConnell recalled.

President George W. Bush's early years in office are a template for how a Republican Washington might govern.

It was the last time the party held all levers of government and Congress churned out legislation affecting Medicare, national security, and tax cuts at a steady clip, usually on strict party line votes.

But back then, Pence was a conservative back-bencher who was often a thorn in the side of the Bush administration. He voted against many of Bush's major initiatives, like the Medicare Part D prescription drug program and the No Child Left Behind Education law.

Now, Pence will be the one picking out the thorns.

In preparation, he's launched a bipartisan charm offensive on Capitol Hill, where he made a point to meet with and praise Democratic leaders. Pence called House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi "a worthy opponent and leader of the loyal opposition."

Democrats likewise believe Pence is the face they are more likely to see at the negotiating table next year.

"You're going to be a very valued player in all of this, because you know the territory. With no disrespect for the sensitivity and the knowledge of the president-elect, you know that territory," Pelosi told Pence, "So in that territory we will try to find our common ground where we can, and of course stand our ground when we can't."

Pelosi has already offered an olive branch to Trump. She says Democrats are ready to work with his administration on some of his campaign proposals, like paid family leave and more infrastructure spending.

Unlike most congressional Republicans, Trump has indicated a willingness to spend money without offsetting spending cuts and to expand or protect certain government programs like Medicare and Social Security.

But Democrats are lining up to oppose Trump's plans to repeal Obamacare and cut taxes for the wealthy. With narrow Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, Trump's ability to get any of that done will require Republican Party unity.

"I think it will be an outsized role for a vice president. I hope so and I think a lot of people here hope so," said Arizona GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, one of Pence's oldest friends on Capitol Hill.

While Pence can count on Flake's friendship, the challenge for him now as vice president, is whether he can he count on his vote.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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