Freshman senators typically are seen but not heard, but it didn’t take long for Republican Rob Portman of Ohio to shatter that mold.
When the Senate’s “Gang of Six” Democrats and Republicans tried to hammer out a deficit-reduction plan earlier this year, they repeatedly turned to Portman for advice on fiscal issues. Then, as the battle over raising the debt ceiling reached the boiling point earlier this month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., leaned heavily on Portman for technical and political advice in negotiating with President Obama and Democratic leaders.
“McConnell had Portman in the room for the last 35 days leading up to the deal,” says Scott Reed, a veteran GOP strategist who was Bob Dole’s campaign manager in the 1996 presidential race. “He is knowledgeable; he has real-world experience and fully understands how Congress works.”
So it was hardly surprising when McConnell picked Portman as one of three Republican senators to serve on the bipartisan “Super Committee.” Although he is new to the Senate, the affable Ohioan boasts a gold-plated résumé that makes him invaluable to Republican leaders — and a potential ally for Democrats:
During his career in the House from 1993 to 2005, Portman authored or co-authored over a dozen bills that became law, including legislation to reform the Internal Revenue Service and curb unfunded federal mandates. A number of times he collaborated with Democrats to pass legislation. In 2005 he left Congress to join President George W. Bush’s administration, first as U.S. Trade Representative and then as director of the Office of Management & Budget, where he honed his expertise on spending and tax issues.
Even as skeptics dismiss the Super Committee as a prescription for more gridlock, Portman is seen by many seasoned observers — Republicans and Democrats alike — as a pivotal figure in helping bridge the partisan divide and facilitate the chance for a deal. Former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, the Republican co-chairman of President Obama’s bipartisan fiscal commission, told The Fiscal Times that Portman “could easily be a catalyst” to getting a deal. “He is the best there is — he has the trust of both Democrats and Republicans. He’s very authentic and knows the game since he has been there with budget issues,” Simpson added.
Portman will join Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., as the three Republican senators serving on the 12-member panel, which has until Thanksgiving to submit major deficit reduction proposals to Congress. The committee makeup is dominated by liberal Democrats concerned about protecting Medicare and other entitlement programs from deep cuts and conservative Tea Party members who oppose raising tax revenues to help reduce the long term debt.
Long-time Congress watcher Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at The American Enterprise Institute, notes that Portman is no inflexible ideologue. “Portman is the key to me,” Ornstein says. “Rob is smart, decent, not a crazy. He is the kind of person you’d want on this panel. He was a model bipartisan [House member] — strongly ideological but to the strong criticism of many Republicans, he worked very well and constructively with [Democrats] on pension issues.”
“He knows that this nonsense that there is not a revenue problem is just that—nonsense,” Ornstein adds. “Also, having served as Trade Representative, he has a real understanding of how fragile the global economy is.”
Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman, confirms that his boss frequently has conferred with Portman on fiscal issues, an unusually prominent role for a lawmaker just elected to the Senate last year. But Stewart noted that Portman is not your average senator. “It is unusual, although he is not your usual guy. His resume is fairly thick,” Stewart says.
That résumé includes six terms in the House, where he landed a coveted seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which is responsible for writing tax and entitlement laws. Before that, the University of Michigan law school graduate served under President George H.W. Bush in the White House counsel’s office and later in the office of legislative affairs. And during his formative years growing up in Cincinnati, Portman worked at his father’s forklift company where he developed a belief that taxes should be low and the government’s role should be limited so that the private sector could flourish.
Portman and the other 11 committee members of the Super Committee have a great incentive to find a deal because, should a majority not reach an agreement by Thanksgiving, then automatic, across-the-board cuts of $1.2 trillion, equally divided between defense and domestic programs, would follow, although Social Security, Medicaid, veterans benefits, and other “essentials” would be exempt.
Neither side wants such indiscriminate slashing: Republicans generally want to avoid dramatic cuts to defense spending, while Democrats advocate a “balanced” approach that doesn’t rely solely on spending cuts but includes revenues. The 12 lawmakers also are aware of the historic levels of disdain towards Congress. A recent poll by The New York Times and CBS News found a record 82 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Congress handles its job—the most since the Times first began asking the question in 1977.
“Washington now has a cloud of incompetence hanging over its head. I think this Gang of 12 has an opportunity to change that narrative. Everybody realizes the seriousness of it,” GOP strategist Reed says.
Portman was not available to comment for this story, but in an earlier interview with The Fiscal Times, he talked up tax reform, which includes overhauling the tax code to broaden the tax base while eliminating “loopholes” and lowering corporate tax rates. “Tax reform is important because it grows the economy and that’s what the [Bowles-Simpson] fiscal commission [recommended],” he said.
Despite the hopes for Portman as a dealmaker, Ornstein cautions that he may have little leeway. “He is a loyalist. Can this guy resist it if Mitch McConnell says, ‘You will not vote for this kind of a deal’—I don’t know.”
But there’s another factor at work. “At the end of the day, Portman is in a very pivotal role because he is looking to a future—he wants to help fix the problem; he also plans on a future in national politics,” Reed says.