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Posted at 9:35 AM ET, 02/17/2011

Interview with Sen. Rob Portman

By Jennifer Rubin

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), like freshmen Republican Sens. Pat Toomey, Roy Blunt and Marco Rubio, occupies a cramped, windowless office in the basement of the Dirksen building. The surroundings are hardly luxurious, but Portman -- a former House member, OMB director and U.S. trade representative -- isn't complaining. In fact, he seems to be in his element, at the center of the most vital issues facing the Senate and with more budget expertise than most of his colleagues.

The day before we spoke, Obama's OMB director, Jacob Lew, was raked over the coals in the Senate Budget Committee by Portman and his colleagues. Portman smiles, "I told him I was once in his shoes. It's hard." But still, Portman, as he told Lew, tells me he was "disappointed" in the president's effort. I asked Portman if he was surprised by the anemic effort to address our fiscal problems. He answered, "Yes. I think they miscalculated. First, they raised expectations ... and then under-delivered." Beyond the rollout, Portman says, the White House "misjudged where the American people are." He says that from polling and anecdotal data, he sees that those critical independent voters "are ready to hear the truth." But the White House, Portman contends, is still operating under the assumption that there's no gain in asking voters to "take any pain."

What about the notion that this is a bargaining gambit, an opening bid? Portman replies that he sure hopes that is the case. But, he observes, "If you start very far to the left, it's harder to get to the middle." Moreover, he identifies three areas of the budget that suggest the administration isn't all that serious about controlling our debt.

First, Portman points to the economic assumptions used by the White House. In 2014, he explains, the White House "assumes growth that is 40 percent higher" than private sector or CBO assumptions. Even in 2012, the White House estimates growth at 16 to 23 percent higher than private forecasters. Second, Portman is concerned about "the number of cuts in the out years." He points to alleged $62 billion in Medicare and Medicaid savings over 10 years to pay for the "doc fix" in the next two years. The administration says that's technically acceptable under the pay-go rules, but in fact we're spending now for theoretical savings in the future. Finally, Portman is alarmed by the language that Lew and others in the White House are using. Lew told the committee that "Social Security is not affecting the deficit." Portman says firmly, "That's not accurate. This year we will spend more than we take into the Social Security trust fund." Again, Portman says, the administration is playing word games. "If you can't even acknowledge that you have to fix Social Security, that's not a very good starting point," Portman says.

Entitlements are where the money is. Portman acknowledges that the House leadership has promised to tackle entitlements in its budget proposal. On the Senate side, he says, entitlement reform has to be done "on a bipartisan base. It's a matter of fact that you need 60 votes." He also says as a political matter "there is no way one party can tackle the issue." All that said, he thinks the debt commission's report "could be a starting point," noting that co-chairman Erskine Bowles had harsh words for the president's proposed budget. Referring to the commission's executive director and author of the report, who now works for the vice president, Portman says, "Bruce Reed must be dying." Aside from entitlements, the president didn't even follow the commission's recommendations on discretionary spending. Portman doesn't agree with everything in the commission report, but he does think tax reform is essential. He recollects, "A Democrat said to me about the commission, 'Look, Paul Ryan didn't even support it.'" Portman says with just a tinge of exasperation, "That's because it didn't go far enough!"

Portman is also on the Senate Armed Services Committee. He cautions Republicans "not to take defense spending off the table like the president took entitlements off the table." He says an audit and scrutiny of the defense bureaucracy are in order. However, he is emphatic that "if we lose our qualitative edge, the world will be a much less safe place and we will end up having to spend much more."

Portman's aides are pressing him to move on to his next appointment, but he is happy to talk about trade. As the trade representative for George W. Bush, he speaks from experience, calling it "crazy, crazy" not to have the Colombia and Panama trade deals ratified. In fact he points out that the administration has not even submitted the deals. He says, "They keep saying, 'It's coming.' " He is plainly perturbed that "our best allies who are being squeezed by Chavez" have been left hanging. Portman explains, "Geopolitically, it's so important for us. We have a trade agreement with Colombia, but it's all one-way." By contrast, the new free-trade deal would be "all pro-U.S. jobs." Moreover, he says, that with "every passing day we are losing market share." When he first began negotiations with South Korea, the United States was South Korea's largest trading partner; now China is. The same concern, he says, exists with a country such as Colombia. We once had 40 percent of that country's market; now it is down to 20 percent. He says that "other countries are protecting their market share" and opening markets for their producers. Meanwhile, there is no leadership from the White House to push the trade deals through.

Portman is not the flashiest of the new senators. He's no outsider. But he does have quiet competence and a grasp of the biggest issues -- the budget, taxes, trade and national security -- facing the country. He might not be the base's rock star, but he could well be an MVP in the budget battles ahead. He certainly will play a critical role in the Republican effort to lay claim to the mantle of fiscal responsibility. And in doing so, he may well become a favorite of the conservative base.

By Jennifer Rubin  | February 17, 2011; 9:35 AM ET
Categories:  Senate GOP  
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Next: The backlash against Obama's U.N. 'compromise' begins


It seems strange that this fawning article barely mentions Portman's role as OMB director for Bush when they used made up numbers to justify massive tax cuts and blow a hole in the budget.

Posted by: mschol17 | February 17, 2011 12:00 PM | Report abuse

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