(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Free from the albatross of a presidential campaign, Sen. Rob Portman is set to play a starring role in helping set the Senate Republican agenda on taxes, spending, trade and more next year.
GOP senators were pleased to hear the news that the Ohio Republican with the gold-plated résumé plans to spend more of the next year in the Capitol than in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“Sen. Portman would be an extraordinarily able president of the United States, but I’m delighted if he’s made that decision, that he’s going to be in the United States Senate. He’s one of our most valuable players,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
Taxes and spending have long been in the former budget director’s wheelhouse.
“I think you’ll see in both areas he’ll play a significant role in the next Congress — both on the budget we put together and pass, the reconciliation instructions in there which are very important — and obviously he’ll be one of the lead guys on tax reform,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.
Portman, who announced Tuesday he would seek re-election but would not run for president in 2016, was almost tapped by 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to be his vice presidential running mate.
“Given Portman’s stature in the Senate and expertise on economic issues, you can expect him to play an outsized role in the new majority; not just because he’s an affable guy, but because he’s got a unique ability to get things done,” a senior Senate Republican aide said.
Portman said his decision not to run for president was based on his desire — now that the GOP will have the majority in the Senate — to take on big issues such as tax policy changes, rewriting energy policy, trade promotion authority and regulatory relief.
“I think getting the majority makes a huge difference,” Portman said at a Wall Street Journal CEO Council event Tuesday. “The Senate has been largely dysfunctional, unable to deal even with the most basic issues and now we have a chance.”
In a Monday interview with Ohio reporters, Portman said he would have been more tempted to run for president had Democrats remained in power.
“I think it would be much harder for me to feel as though I was making a significant difference in the lives of my fellow Ohioans if Harry Reid had stayed in there, because we wouldn’t be doing tax reform or expanding exports or budgets or some of the other oversight responsibilities that we have and are not doing here in the Congress,” he said, according to the Columbus Dispatch.
Portman worked as a legislative affairs director for President George Bush before winning a House seat in 1993. He served for years on the Ways and Means Committee, which handles taxes, trade and health care. President George W. Bush appointed him as the U.S. trade representative in 2005, and the following year he became director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican who is ranking member on the Budget Committee, said Portman earned some of his following when, in the OMB post, he managed to win the support of the president for a budget that balanced.
“To do that, he had to tell secretaries and department heads you’re not going to get as much money as you’d like, which is a tough job, and you can’t just cut taxes and increase spending. This won’t work,” Sessions said.
Portman now serves on the Senate Budget and Finance committees, which have a broad economic ambit.
“He has been, and will be this year particularly, an invaluable member of the Budget Committee because as [a former] OMB director he fully understands this process, and his values are good,” said Sessions, who is on the conservative side of the political spectrum.
“He also is one of the top Senate members who understands tax policy, which is a big part of how we are going to be able to produce a budget that’ll work,” Sessions said. “So, he’s an extraordinarily valuable member of the committee and the conference.”
Portman, who speaks in a cool, controlled manner, also has the respect of many, mostly moderate, Democrats and has worked with them on legislation.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., sponsored an energy efficiency bill with Portman and hopes that other areas of common interest can be found.
“I’ve enjoyed the partnership we’ve had around energy efficiency and I hope that continues not only on energy issues, but others as well,” Shaheen said.
Portman said Tuesday the energy efficiency measure was on his to-do list for the next Congress. He holds a seat on the Energy and Natural Resources panel.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said she hopes to do important work with Portman. The two could lead the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Investigations. Portman is interested in being chairman.
“We could really do some important work together there, so I’m looking forward to it,” McCaskill said.
The subcommittee is famous for its broad jurisdiction and subpoena power relating to the efficiency and economy of operations of all branches of the government. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is currently that panel’s ranking member, but he is also in line to be Armed Services chairman and conference rules generally preclude leaders of top committees from holding such gavels.
McCaskill has also worked with Portman on legislation, including a measure to streamline the process for building infrastructure projects.
When Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., heard Portman was not running for president, he said he joked to his staff, “that means Romney must be running. … That’s the first thing that popped into my mind.”
Heller worked with Portman on an unemployment extension, which passed the Senate only to stall in the House. He welcomed Portman’s decision.
“He’s a great senator, easy to work with, has a great disposition, everybody likes him,” Heller said.