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.
“I will be involved with [trade] in the context of jobs. You know, [the South Korea free trade agreement] alone, according to the administration, will create 70,000 new jobs, and these other agreements are similarly great for exports because they knock down other barriers to our workers and farmers,” he said.
Portman’s portfolio makes him a natural fit on the Senate Budget Committee. He also was assigned seats on the Armed Services, Energy and Natural Resources, and Homeland Security and Government Affairs panels. Notably, Senate leaders tapped him as a member of the Republican Whip team as well.
As he mulled whether to formally throw his hat in the ring for an open Senate seat and a return to D.C. after three and a half years, he consulted friends on both sides of the aisle.
He sat down to lunch with his former House colleague, Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.).
“He was in a difficult situation during the campaign: He didn’t endorse me,” Portman said, laughing. “But we talked a lot about why he ran for the Senate and what he thought about it.”
Cardin said he told Portman he would like serving in the Senate.
“He came here and we had lunch together and he was just talking generally about the United States Senate,” Cardin told Roll Call.
“I know how he legislates. He is a very serious legislator.” Cardin said. “He’s a very intense legislator. What I told him was that he would find the Senate very much to his liking because it’s about personal relationships, which he is good at, and you have the opportunity to get a lot done.”
Portman counts Speaker John Boehner as one of his many friends inside the Capitol. Portman credited the Ohio Republican, who represents a Cincinnati-area district that neighbors Portman’s former House district, with encouraging him to run in his first House race.
“I don’t know that I would have run that first time for Congress if he hadn’t approached me and encouraged me to do it,” Portman said.
Sen. Mark Udall described Portman as a “strong” lawmaker who would be critical in efforts to pass bipartisan legislation on issues such as the implementation of the deficit commission recommendations.
Udall added that Portman’s focused nature goes beyond legislative matters.
“He prides himself on being fit — and I think, like me, if he has an hour and the choice was eating a big dinner and drinking two glasses of wine and being in the gym, he’s going to be in the gym,” the Colorado Democrat said.
In addition to his reputation for knowing Washington inside and out, Portman is equally well-known for being just a nice guy.
Entering his makeshift Capitol Hill office the day before the State of the Union, he called out to his staff to come see the briefcase his three children, two in college and one in high school, had gotten for him.
As a few staffers walked into the lobby, he pulled out a shoebox-sized plush “Senator’s briefcase” that included a stuffed cell phone, passport and other small versions of items necessary for his first day at the office.
The one item his family added: a face book containing the photos of his Senate colleagues.
“This will be important,” he said.