By Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Shortly after Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election in November, Vice President-elect Mike Pence visited the country’s largest manufacturing lobby group, six blocks from the White House, to brainstorm about Trump's legislative agenda.
The conversation at the National Association of Manufacturers was friendly, with a lot of "give and take," said Aric Newhouse, NAM's senior vice president of government relations. The business group felt Pence spoke their language and that it would be full-steam ahead on long-sought goals such as simplifying the tax code and repealing Obamacare, President Barack Obama’s signature legislation that aimed to extend health insurance to cover more Americans.
But over the past week, Trump has sown confusion about some of his legislative aims. He criticized a key element of his Republican Party's tax plan, known as the border adjustment tax. He also seemed to muddy the waters on his promise of repealing Obamacare by calling for healthcare insurance for all.
While NAM was not unduly alarmed, the episode highlights the challenge facing Pence, 57, who will serve as chief emissary to Capitol Hill for Trump after the New York businessman is sworn in as the 45th U.S. president on Friday.
Pence spent a dozen years as a congressman beginning in 2001, forging a number of personal relationships, especially with conservatives. While he does not have a reputation on the Hill as a deal-maker, lawmakers, Hill aides and lobbyists describe him as affable and a good communicator who is respectful in his dealings with both friend and foe.
But the NAM experience shows that Pence's biggest obstacle in striking deals in Congress may be Trump himself. That's because people negotiating with Pence may not always know if he speaks for his boss.
Pence and Trump are a study in contrasts.
Where Trump is combative and chases the limelight, Pence, most recently governor of Indiana, is even-keeled and calm, a man described by Republicans and Democrats as articulate and upbeat.
Few vice presidents in modern U.S. history have occupied the central role in legislative affairs that Pence will have. Former Vice President Dick Cheney cut deals and cajoled lawmakers for President George W. Bush, but Pence's assignment may be broader.
In Trump's first 100 days in office, Pence will be "leading the charge" on a number of initiatives in Congress, such as rewriting Obamacare and overhauling the tax code, senior Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told Reuters.
"He has the assurance and the green light to do so from President Trump,” Conway said.
"He is a major part of every serious conversation and important decision that is made, especially when it comes to the legislative agenda," she said.
While Pence certainly appears to be part of Trump's inner circle, it’s far from clear who is closest to the new president, or whether they will tend to agree with Pence.
Even though Republicans control both chambers of Congress, Pence will need plenty of political finesse to rally the party's sometimes unruly rank-and-file lawmakers behind Trump's agenda, once it is more fully fleshed out.
From the conservative Tea Party faction to the moderate Republicans, the party remains divided. Many Republicans differ with Trump on issues such as free trade and worry he might be too willing to spend money that could increase budget deficits.
'LIMBAUGH ON DECAF'
In his home state of Indiana during the 1990s, Pence honed his communication skills as a talk radio host. But his low-key style stood in stark contrast to many conservative radio hosts. He has called himself "Rush Limbaugh on decaf," referring to the influential right-wing talk show host famous for his flame-throwing statements.
Pence, who was raised Catholic and later became an evangelical Christian, would sometimes host Bible studies in his office in the House of Representatives. Texas Representative John Carter attended those meetings and recalled that Pence “had a little setup of a radio station” there in a reminder of his former career.
During Republican President George W. Bush's administration, Pence firmly established himself as a fiscal hawk.
He resisted initiatives that he viewed as government overreach, including the 2002 "No Child Left Behind" education reform that emphasized standardized testing as a way of gauging how well schools were doing in raising student performance.
Pence's staunch opposition to big government made him one of the "forerunners" to what later became the Tea Party, said Michael Steel, a former spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan's predecessor, John Boehner.
Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who served in the House with Pence during the 2000s, said the two of them fashioned themselves as self-appointed fiscal watchdogs.
BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID
They kept a close eye on late-night sessions where other lawmakers would seek to get more government spending approved without anyone noticing.
"Mike and Iwould have to wait up all night and rush to the (House) floor and burst through the doors” to object to those measures, Flake recounted in an interview.
“Somebody said at one point when we burst through it looked like the saloon doors in 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,'” Flake said, referring to the 1969 film about the two Wild West outlaws.
Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, a leading conservative voice, said Pence has been a role model for other Republicans on how to advance conservative principles without being hard-edged.
"I always remember the line Pence had: 'I'm a conservative and I'm not mad about it' ... It's a line I've used many times, saying that Mike Pence always used to say that," Jordan said.
Pence calls Speaker Ryan, who has struggled with staunch conservatives in his caucus, a close friend. Their ties may help to smooth over some of the tensions that arose between Ryan and Trump during the 2016 campaign.
Cultivating Republicans won't be Pence's only job.
If Republicans in the House of Representatives can rally around Trump's agenda, Democrats will have few tools to block them.
But in the Senate, Democrats can use procedural moves to stop legislation that does not otherwise have support from 60 senators. Republicans control 52 votes in the 100-member chamber.
Pence's smooth demeanor will go only so far given his ideological gulf with congressional Democrats. He has raised the ire of Democrats with his outspoken stance against abortion, his work against gay rights, his opposition to measures aimed at women’s pay equity in the workplace and his determination to repeal Obamacare.
Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, who was part of the House Republican leadership during the mid-2000s, said he expected Pence would stick to his conservative principles, even if they clashed with Trump's.
“I don’t think he’d be very effective arguing against his own feelings," Blunt said. "But I think he’d be smart enough to go to the president and say, ‘I can be supportive of this because you are the president and I am the vice president, but I am not going to be a good salesman’” on that particular issue.
(Reporting By Susan Cornwell, Richard Cowan, Steve Holland and Julia Edwards Ainsley; Editing by Caren Bohan and Ross Colvin)