Big Time Punches In

As Dick Cheney works the levers of power, a look at the Veep's schedule shows why he's a major league asset to President Bush

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Cheney's lunch with Bush may be the least interesting of his midday meals. Each Tuesday the Vice President plans to travel to the Senate for the Republican conference lunch, and he has promised to make regular visits to the House on Wednesdays. Such visits are rare. When Quayle, the last Veep to have regular lunch dates on the Hill, met with Senators, he was not seen as a significant conduit to the White House. Cheney, however, sends all kinds of strong signals. Republican Senators already consider him their 51st member, the one who will be needed to break tie votes. Even more important, they see him as a reliable link to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. "He has the delivery system and the capacity" to carry messages to and from the President, says a senior Senate aide. In meetings with lawmakers, Cheney holds back more than he holds forth. He doesn't work the room but sits quietly until he is introduced. Then he lays out the agenda quickly and without gassing on and on, a laconic style that few others in the room practice. He takes questions, but mostly he listens.

Inside Washington's chatterbox culture, Cheney's silence and trademark smirk make people nervous. In his office a picture from his Gulf War days captures the perfect Cheney pose--former President Bush and General Colin Powell standing in the foreground while Cheney lurks in the background with what an aide calls his "cockeyed look," his shoulders hunched and a slanted, slightly menacing smile on his face. Since his days as Gerald Ford's chief of staff and, later, as second-ranking Republican in the House, that look has invited all manner of interpretations. Returning from White House meetings last week, Republicans and Democrats were puzzling over what the man in the background was thinking. "He just sits there with a cat's grin," remarked one legislator. Maybe it was that opaque quality that Bush was referring to early last week when 15 Republican and Democratic Senators sat down at the long table in the White House Cabinet room and the President said, "Welcome to Cheney's charm offensive."

On the Hill, it's now widely assumed that while Bush spreads goodwill, Cheney will sow fear. He is the Administration's chief enforcer. His task is not to woo Democrats but to keep fractious Republicans in line. Senator John McCain got a glimpse of that Cheney two weeks ago, when he arrived at the White House for what he thought would be a private meeting with the President to discuss campaign-finance reform. Cheney was there too. And though Bush suggested he was open-minded about McCain's proposal to restrict campaign funding, Cheney made it clear he wasn't. McCain left the meeting wondering whose position would carry the day.

Cheney will be soothing the concerns of conservatives, who worry that Bush will give too much away to the Democrats to get legislation passed. House Speaker Denny Hastert--whose son landed a job on Cheney's staff--has taken to calling Cheney an extra whip, the vote-corralling job he held in his days as a Wyoming Congressman. As a Hastert aide says, "It's hard to turn the White House down when Cheney calls."

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