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At the height of campaign season, and while under extra scrutiny as a potential vice presidential pick, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) is on a quixotic bid to reform how the miscellaneous tariff bill is crafted.
In the process, he’s going against the Republican Ways and Means Committee chairman — a close friend, as it happens — while giving bipartisan cover to a vulnerable Democratic Senator.
“I’m just trying to get something done here that helps the country,” Portman said in an interview in his office in the Russell Senate Office Building.
The miscellaneous tariff bill, or MTB as it is known inside the Beltway, is a collection of scores of narrowly targeted bills that temporarily suspend taxes on importing chemicals and other goods U.S. manufacturers hope to use for less cost.
Although relatively obscure, it’s a top priority of the business lobby. But the bill is in limbo because many critics of Congressional earmarks say the limited tariff benefits that make up the law are banned under House and Senate rules.
Portman, a veteran of both Bush administrations and the House, has joined Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) in introducing legislation that would give the International Trade Commission the first look at the proposals, rather than vetting what Congress sends to the ITC, transcending the problem with the earmark ban.
Their bill has the backing of many Republican leaders. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl offered the bill as an amendment to Citrus Trust Fund legislation in a Finance Committee markup Wednesday.
“If we don’t modify the process, we’re not going to have any MTB this year,” the Arizona Republican said, adding that most Senate Republicans believe the tariff suspensions qualify as earmarks.
But Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), whom McCaskill has described as fiercely protective of his committee’s turf, panned the bill, which lost on a voice vote.
“This process as I understand it — although it’s not been vetted — reduces transparency,” Baucus said, warning ominously of “lobbyists” influencing the ITC. “It’s a secret process.”
House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), Baucus noted, is “strongly opposed” as well, adding, “He thinks it’s a bad idea.”
Baucus and Camp had been pushing to move the MTB through without altering the earmark ban.
And as Camp was fending off pressure from conservative groups that the MTB plan amounted to pushing through earmarks, the Portman-McCaskill proposal was announced, undercutting his argument that no such change to the process was necessary.