And Now, Batting Right
Rep. Mike Pence compares himself to the old baseball player in the movie The Natural. And it's not, he chuckles, because he's got Robert Redford's good looks.
Like the Redford character, Roy Hobbs, the grizzled home-run hitter who comes back after a long hiatus, the silver-haired Indiana Republican is on a roll after years of trying unsuccessfully to break into the major leagues. "What made him so committed to winning, so committed to the integrity of the game," says the 46-year-old Pence, comparing himself to the fictional sports star, "was it took him so long to get there." Pence ran for Congress in 1988 and lost, ran two years after that and lost. Today, however, in his third term on Capitol Hill, he has emerged as a powerful force, moving Congress further to the right.
Rising star. Known as a "conservative's conservative" on fiscal and social issues, Pence chairs an influential group of more than 110 Republican spending hawks who are winning major victories in their battle for smaller government. Under Pence, the group has broken ranks with party leadership and moderates, often clashing with President Bush. Conservative members love his steady leadership style and intelligent articulation of conservative values. "He is clearly a rising star among conservatives and a man we believe will be a major influential player in the process of reforming our government in the years to come," says Bill Lauderback, executive vice president of the American Conservative Union, which gave Pence its highest score of 100 percent for the past two years.
The latest internecine GOP battle is over next year's $2.8 trillion budget. Moderates want at least $7 billion in extra spending for education, healthcare, and other social programs. But Pence and like-minded colleagues created havoc by coercing the House leadership to crack down on two notorious budgetbusting categories: earmarks (also known as pork barrel projects) and "emergency" items. Members of the Appropriations Committee, which writes the checks, balked at the restrictions. They refused to finish a budget bill, forcing embarrassed House leaders to slink off for their Easter recess with nothing to show. "It's unfortunate," said Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, "that the whims of a few would prevent the overwhelming majority of our members from once again enjoying similar budgetary success."
Pence and his allies, however, can hardly be called "a few." More than 110 House Republicans out of a total of 231 belong to the conservative Republican Study Committee that he chairs. Over 20 Republicans joined the committee since Pence took the helm two years ago. Under Pence's leadership, the committee has played a pivotal role in a House closely divided between Democrats and Republicans. It helped push the House last year to pass the deficit reduction bill, which Bush signed into law, even though Democrats and Republican moderates protested that it cut important spending for healthcare and education.
Most committee members say they elected Pence not only for his leadership abilities but for his media savvy and communication skills. His own communication training began more than a decade ago when he started hosting a call-in radio show, which eventually ran on 18 stations across Indiana. He still guest-hosts a program aired in Indianapolis from microphones set up next to his desk in his office in the Cannon House Office Building.