Vice President Mike Pence speaks to GOP representatives Friday at a three-day retreat in Baltimore.
Vice President Mike Pence speaks to GOP representatives Friday at a three-day retreat in Baltimore. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

Vice President Mike Pence urged U.S. House Republicans in Baltimore Friday to “make it clear” that the GOP is prepared to work with Democrats — including Elijah Cummings, the Baltimore congressman sharply and repeatedly criticized by President Donald Trump.

Speaking at a House Republican retreat, Pence went where Trump — who addressed the lawmakers Thursday night — did not by appearing to extend an olive branch to Cummings.

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In his remarks at a lunch at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel in Harbor East, Pence looked ahead to the 2020 presidential and congressional elections. He encouraged the lawmakers to “let your voice be heard” and “put out that positive message.”

That was when he brought up Cummings, a veteran representative who chairs a committee that has been investigating Trump and the policies of the president’s administration.

“Make it clear that as I stand here in Baltimore, make it clear that Republicans and this president are ready to work with Democrats, including Elijah Cummings, to improve the lives of people in cities like Baltimore,” Pence said to applause from several hundred members, their spouses and guests.

A spokesman for Cummings declined to comment on Pence’s remarks.

On July 27, Trump began a string of tweets and comments attacking Cummings, the congressman’s hometown of Baltimore and his 7th congressional district, which the president called “rat and rodent infested.” Later in the same week, Trump later alleged billions of dollars in federal aid to the city was “wasted” and “stolen." City officials disputed that claim and Trump never offered evidence.

In a National Press Club speech Aug. 7, Cummings invited Trump to visit his district to see a different sort of Baltimore than the one the president described.

“Oh, God, I want him to come,” the congressman said.

Trump alluded Thursday to his earlier remarks, saying, “We’re going to fight for the future of cities like Baltimore that have been destroyed by decades of failed and corrupt rule.”

Pence’s speech came as the Republicans gathered for a second day in Baltimore seeking to test-drive their 2020 election strategy, which includes rallying behind the economy and rights for gun owners, and hoping Democrats’ discussions of impeaching Trump motivate the GOP base.

Larry Kudlow, director of the U.S. National Economic Council, briefed lawmakers privately Friday, telling reporters afterward: “I continue to be an optimist. I don’t see a recession.”

Kudlow reiterated that the administration plans a new round of middle-class tax relief “sometime maybe in the middle of next year.”

Trump and Pence both highlighted low unemployment and other favorable economic signs. Pence called the economy “booming.”

Democrats have criticized Trump over the trade war with China, and said his 2017 tax overhaul only benefits corporations and the very rich.

Democrats hold a 235-197 advantage in the House of Representatives with one independent representative and two vacancies in the chamber. The GOP lost its majority in the 2018 midterm elections and has been hit recently with a slew of members announcing their retirements.

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Historically, House majorities are far more likely to flip in midterm elections than in presidential election years.

But House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, speaking to reporters at the hotel, said there were hopeful signs from Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory.

“You’ve got 31 [House] districts that Democrats currently sit in that Donald Trump carried. Thirteen of them he carried by more than six points,” McCarthy said. “We only have to win 19 seats to be in the majority.”

Pence said during his speech that he and Trump “are absolutely committed to seeing a Republican majority" in the House.

“I just came here first and foremost to say thanks,” Pence told the lawmakers. “I know it’s a challenging time to be in the minority.”

About a dozen House Republicans have announced they are leaving Congress.

“Every two years, we’re going to have people retire on both sides,” McCarthy said. “The only retirement I was concerned about was Will Hurd. That’s a tough seat. Will Hurd is an exceptional person.”

Hurd, of Texas, unexpectedly announced over the summer that he would not seek re-election.

McCarthy took issue with a statement by Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke in a debate Thursday night: “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” O’Rourke said.

McCarthy said the notion of taking Americans’ guns would not play well with voters.

“He said he was just going to take them from people,” the GOP leader said.

McCarthy said Democrats were hurting themselves by keeping open the possibility of trying to impeach Trump. The House Judiciary Committee is weighing an impeachment investigation.

“The Democrats are making it an issue and I think it’s the wrong issue for them to even talk about,” McCarthy said.

House Republicans facing potentially challenging races must hope Trump is more popular at election time, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

“Their main priority should be surviving Trump if their district is reasonably competitive and they have a well-funded opponent,” Sabato said.

He said 2020 “will be all about Trump and the Democrat finally chosen to oppose him.”

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