WASHINGTON (CN) – Republican vice presidential candidate Gov. Mike Pence returned to Capitol Hill Tuesday seeking to calm the nerves of lawmakers still reluctant to fully embrace party standard-bearer Donald Trump.
The Indiana governor’s tour of Capitol Hill began with a meeting with the House Republican Conference at Republican National Committee headquarters down the street from the Capitol. He is scheduled to address Senate Republicans during a weekly party luncheon Tuesday afternoon.
While some lawmakers have kept Trump at arm’s length in the hopes of avoiding any potential down ballot effects the widely disliked nominee might bring, Republican leaders Tuesday directly tied their agenda to Trump, saying his rise shows voters are ready for change only Republicans can deliver.
“Our members were excited to have him, we feel the wind at our back, and we’re excited about getting this agenda and moving it into law,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said at the news conference after the meeting with Pence.
The vice presidential candidate said the goals of Republican House leaders are “identical” to those of the Trump campaign, especially in the areas of military spending, economic policy and the desire to reverse the “downhill” direction the GOP insists the country is moving in.
“House Republicans, Senate Republicans are deeply committed to marching back up that hill,” Pence said. “And when we elect Donald Trump as the next president of the United States of America, they will have a team and a partner in the White House to march back up to a stronger and greater America.”
The party leaders praised Pence, who served for two decades in the House before taking the governor’s office in Indiana. Republican Conference Chairwoman Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers called the meeting “a highlight of this year” and Ryan referred to Pence as a “friend.”
“For Hoosiers, Mike Pence is their governor, for Americans, Mike Pence is Donald Trump’s running mate and the next vice president,” Ryan said. “For us, Mike Pence is a friend.”
Many saw Trump choosing Pence as his running mate as a peace offering to more traditional Republicans struggling with his hard-to-define populism.
But Trump has still struggled to convince GOP traditionalists to fall behind him, especially those with vulnerable seats in a hotly contested districts election.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, one of Trump’s fiercest rivals in the primary campaign, pointedly declined to endorse Trump in a speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July, and two of his fellow senators, Jeff Flake, of Arizona, and Ben Sasse, of Nebraska, have been vocal in their opposition to Trump.
Ryan has said he supports the Republican nominee, but the relationship has been anything but smooth. Ryan called Trump’s suggestion that a judge hearing a Trump University case could not be impartial because of his Mexican ancestry “the textbook definition of a racist comment” in June.
Trump responded by waffling on whether he would endorse Ryan, who was facing a primary in August, though he eventually supported the speaker.
Pence pushed aside a question Tuesday morning about Ryan’s past rebukes of Trump, saying the campaign’s respect for Ryan is “boundless” and that there is remarkable “consistency” between the visions of the party’s congressional leaders and its nominee.
“Look, you’re going to have in a majority party, you’re going to occasionally have differences of opinion,” Pence said. “But our goals are identical.”
While Ryan and his leadership team emphasized similarities between the desires of the Trump campaign and House Republicans, Senate Republicans heaped much less praise on their nominee and his messenger after their meeting with Pence.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters at a new conference shortly after the meeting that there was an “extensive” question and answer session between Pence and Senate Republicans, and that the meeting reinforced their confidence in Trump’s decision to choose Pence as his running mate.
“I can pretty safely say everyone felt good about the Pence election when it was announced and felt even better about it today,” McConnell said. “It was a very good meeting.”
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., would not say whether the meeting with Pence was focused on policy, however.
Wicker told reporters he expected if Republicans put a bill repealing and replacing Obamacare on President Trump’s desk in his first 100 days in office, he would sign it, but gave no indication Pence told senators as much.
While the House is considered safe to stay in the hands of Republicans after the November elections, the Senate could very well swing to the Democrats.
Despite the ambivalence of some in his party, Trump has been gaining on Democrat Hillary Clinton in recent polls.
What was once as much as a seven point lead for Clinton after the Democratic Convention has fallen to a two point gap, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average.
Pence’s meetings with Republican lawmakers come a day after he declined to call former KKK leader David Duke “deplorable” during an interview with CNN.
The question stemmed from Hillary Clinton’s assertion at a recent fundraiser that half of Trump’s voters are from a “basket of deplorables.”
Pence did tell CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he did not want Duke’s support or “the support of people who think like him.”
When given the opportunity to call Duke deplorable at the press conference after the meeting, Pence declined, saying he is not in the business of name calling.
“For all the world I have no idea why this man keeps coming up,” Pence said. “Donald Trump and I have denounced David Duke repeatedly. We have said we don’t want his support and we don’t want the support of people who think like him.”
Pence called on Clinton to apologize for the “deeply insulting” comments.”
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