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With the budget, trade and jobs high on Congress’ priority list this year, freshman Sen. Rob Portman’s return to Washington appears almost too well-timed.
The Ohio Republican’s credentials are particularly unusual, and a rundown of the top issues in the House and Senate reads like a list of the problems Portman has spent his career tackling.
As both the former head of the Office of Management and Budget and the U.S. trade representative in the Bush administration, Portman frequently worked as a liaison between the legislative and executive branches.
Those who have worked with Portman — whether it was during his tenure in the House or in the administration — expect he will reprise that role in some way in the Senate.
“He is always the guy that leaders are looking to to be the point man,” said Sean Spicer, a former House leadership and Bush administration aide who worked with Portman in both capacities. “People know that Rob is an honest broker and a straight shooter. ... People don’t feel like they are going to get burned.”
Portman said his focus is on bringing jobs back to Ohio — where the unemployment rate has hovered near 10 percent for more than a year — but he expects he will end up playing a role in bipartisan talks on budgetary and trade issues.
“I’ve always been able to work across the aisle. I consider it sticking to principle — not compromises but finding common ground on a principled basis,” he said during an interview in his temporary office in the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. “Twelve of my bills were signed into law by President Bill Clinton in the House.”
Tony Fratto, a former White House spokesman and partner at Hamilton Place Strategies, said he would be surprised if the White House does not reach out to Portman on trade issues given his background and the fact that he comes from a state with a mixed view of trade.
“His way of talking about trade issues while being a pro-trade guy from Ohio is a neat trick,” Fratto said. “People want to sit down and talk to him because he has a real understanding of the issues.”
Spicer added, “He always has a way of bringing [trade issues] back to the guy in Ohio who is looking for a job.”
Portman said he anticipates that trade would not be far behind jobs on his legislative agenda.