Pence to delay Mideast trip as tax deal nears vote
WASHINGTON – Vice President Mike Pence will delay and curtail his upcoming trip to the Middle East to be on hand for an upcoming Senate tax vote and take into account the unwillingness of Palestinians and others to meet with him while in Egypt and Israel.
The White House said Thursday that Pence now plans to leave for Egypt on Tuesday so he can preside over the Senate during a likely vote next week on the Republicans' sweeping tax package. Pence serves as president of the Senate. Pence also shortened the length of his planned trip to the region after Palestinian officials and leading Muslim and Christian clerics in Egypt said they would refuse to meet with him.
Pence had originally been scheduled to leave Saturday for Israel, following President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Pence spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said the vice president now would travel first to Egypt and then to Israel.
"Yesterday the White House informed Senate leadership that due to the historic nature of the vote in the Senate on tax cuts for millions of Americans, the VP would stay to preside over the vote," Farah said in a written statement.
Trump and Republican lawmakers are hoping for a vote early next week on a package of steep tax cuts for corporations and more modest cuts for families, a top Trump legislative priority. Republicans, who hold a narrow 52-48 majority in the Senate, can afford to lose just two votes while counting on Pence to break a tie.
White House officials said they do not expect to need Pence's vote. But Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Thad Cochran of Mississippi have missed votes recently because of health issues. Pence's decision to preside over the Senate would ensure he's available to cast a tie-breaking vote if necessary.
Pence also was forced to adjust his schedule in the Middle East amid protests from leaders over Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Aides to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has condemned Trump's decision, said earlier this week that he would not meet with the vice president. Abbas had originally planned to host Pence, a devout Christian, in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem.
Pence is scheduled to be in Cairo on Wednesday for a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a close ally of Trump's. Pence will arrive in Israel later Wednesday for a visit to the Western Wall. The vice president will then meet Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, deliver an address to the Knesset and later dine with Netanyahu.
White House officials said Pence will end his visit to Israel on Friday by meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. White House officials said Pence had no plans to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected.
The status of Jerusalem has been a central issue in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Trump's announcement last week was widely perceived as taking the side of Israel. The decision upended decades of U.S. foreign policy and countered an international consensus that Jerusalem's status should be decided in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, who claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
The White House has said Trump remains committed to the goal of peace and notes he has not taken a position on the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or resolution of its contested borders.
Trump has set an ambitious goal of brokering Mideast peace and tasked his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner to help lay the groundwork for direct negotiations. Kushner and other top Trump aides have traveled to the region to meet with Palestinians, Israelis and officials from Arab nations.
Pence's trip is scheduled to end on Dec. 23 with a pre-Christmas visit with troops stationed at the United States' Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
On Twitter follow Ken Thomas at @KThomasDC.