Facing questions about being on the national Republican ticket, Rob Portman keeps telling reporters he wants to be a Senator. And the funny thing about that is that he’s actually acting like one.
In a Congress defined by manufactured crisis, gridlock and ample partisan rancor, the Ohioan has been reaching across the aisle for legislative initiatives he finds worthy. And while all the hullabaloo of the will-he-won’t-he game of vice presidential politics might be a nuisance — or might even be the buildup to an actual selection — the freshman Senator is using his Beltway know-how and spotlight to introduce bills that actually aim to cut through some of gridlock, such as a measure Wednesday to end the practice of government shutdowns.
Portman has found willing and able partners in vulnerable, in-cycle moderate Democrats. Montana Sen. Jon Tester, who is facing one of the toughest re-election battles in the country, is the Democratic co-sponsor of the anti-shutdown bill. And throughout the year, Portman has teamed up with Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), his counterpart on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight. The two launched a wide-ranging probe in February into the Obama administration’s public relations spending and recently introduced a bill revamping the process for considering the miscellaneous tariff bill to get around Congressional earmark bans.
“Where there’s common ground, it’s easy,” Portman said in a brief interview, adding that he often can “agree on the basics” with moderates of both parties. “We’re reaching out to everybody. [Tester] had interest in it. The idea is to avoid the kind of fiscal year-end crisis we normally find ourselves in.”
With an intensifying national spotlight on Portman, his push to end the practice of government shutdown threats — and in a bipartisan manner — is especially interesting.
Both parties have used the threat of a shutdown to try to score political points on budget issues. Spending bill deadlines have become one of the key mechanisms for leaders to force cooperation, regularly toying with thousands of federal workers and facilities in the process.
And unlike Portman, many Republican freshmen have used their new platforms to promote party messaging or more amorphous ideals instead of focusing on more specific, targeted legislative measures. But Portman’s résumé suggests he values a smoothly operating government; he is a former House Member and a former Office of Management and Budget director and U.S. trade representative under President George W. Bush.
The End Government Shutdowns Act would create a 120-day automatic stopgap bill, or continuing resolution, at current spending levels if regular appropriations bills are not approved by the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year. After that four-month period, if Congress has still failed to act, the CR levels would be reduced by 1 percent every 90 days.
In a release Wednesday afternoon, Tester’s campaign touted the Democrat’s work with Portman to build on an anti-Beltway-partisanship narrative: “Montana farmer Jon Tester is again working across party lines with a tough message for irresponsible politicians in Washington: Montanans shouldn’t have to pay the price when Congress plays politics with the economy,” the release read.
Though Tester is the only Democrat on board so far, Portman said he is working to get more. The bill was originally unveiled with eight GOP co-sponsors: Sens. John Barrasso (Wyo.), John Boozman (Ark.), Dan Coats (Ind.), John Cornyn (Texas), Mike Enzi (Wyo.), John Hoeven (N.D.), Mike Lee (Utah) and John McCain (Ariz.).
Cornyn, as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is professionally committed to defeating Tester, his fellow co-sponsor.
Portman’s office added that the Senator circulated the legislation during the party’s weekly policy luncheon and picked up 12 more supporters, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Finance ranking member Orrin Hatch (Utah).
“Rob has a tremendous depth on economic issues and has been a very effective Senator since the day he arrived,” McConnell said in a statement.
Though it’s unclear whether the anti-shutdown bill will find enough support to become law and even less clear whom presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney will pick as his No. 2, what is clear is that Portman is creating value regardless of whether he becomes the vice presidential nominee.
A Republican who can work across the aisle could be highly valuable to a President Romney if Democrats keep the Senate or if the GOP wins by a narrow margin. According to sources on both sides of the aisle, Portman could be that person.
But before lawmakers can even worry about November, they have a laundry list of legislative items to tackle, including spending bills to keep the government funded. And that’s where Portman’s bill could come into play if it gains traction.
McConnell and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) publicly committed to approving appropriations bills earlier this year, though Congress’ ability to do so is in serious question.
The process is not as far along as it should be with the fall deadline. Earlier this month, the two leaders exchanged stern words over what has been jamming up the process, and many sources have conceded that a CR is likely.
“Congress continually fails to pass appropriations bills by the October 1st deadline, we should not force Americans to face the threat of government shutdown hanging over their heads,” Portman said in a statement introducing his bill.