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Rob Portman, the boring Midwesterner who could bring sanity to the debt debate

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Seems just about everybody in this town has gone mad.

President Obama and congressional leaders storm out of meetings and exchange taunts. As the nation nears a calamitous default on the national debt, Senate Democrats waste much of a week debating a symbolic resolution about taxing millionaires. Republicans opt for a fight on the House floor over light bulbs.

But one man, Sen. Rob Portman, continues to do the people’s business. On Thursday, the Ohio Republican shepherded through the Energy Committee, in a bipartisan vote of 18 to 3, a bill promoting energy efficiency that he had written with New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. The day before, he stood in a windowless room beneath the Senate chamber to announce legislation to reduce prisoner recidivism that he wrote with the fiercely partisan Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

The show was vintage Portman: sober, smart — and exceedingly dull. He droned on in his Midwestern monotone about program streamlining and legislative reauthorization. “Let me put some statistics behind this,” he said, rattling off many.

This somnolent performance is exactly why I have admired Portman since I met him years ago when he was in the House, before he became President George W. Bush’s trade representative and budget director. That Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is soliciting the freshman senator’s advice on debt negotiations gives me a slim hope that reason will prevail.

Until recently, Portman’s seriousness wouldn’t have been unusual. But in this generation of lawmakers obsessed with the next election, Portman is part of a dwindling sanity caucus.

It isn’t about ideology; Portman is as conservative as they come and, along with Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), is a favorite to be the GOP vice presidential candidate. Rather, Portman’s distinction is his archaic view that national interest should come before political calculation. “We need a lot more of that,” said one Democratic friend, Sen. Mark Udall (Colo.), who hopes Portman will be the deus ex machina in the debt standoff. “As the clock ticks, I have high hopes for Rob.”

From the start, Portman thought it was a bad idea to use the debt-limit vote to force a showdown, presciently arguing that Republicans didn’t have much leverage because the consequences of default would be so dire. “I am a fiscal conservative with a conservative record, but I think sometimes we don’t focus on the results,” he told me. “Inevitably, if you’re focused on that, you have to reach out to the other side.”

Portman and I spoke in the Senate Reception Room, decorated with Brumidi frescos and portraits of five of the great senators, including Portman’s hero, Robert Taft. Taft, a fellow Cincinnatian, was deeply conservative and known as “Mr. Republican,” but when a commission led by John F. Kennedy chose portraits for the room, they included Taft with legends such as Daniel Webster and Henry Clay.

“He was clearly a conservative, but he was also clearly a member of the Senate who was well regarded and respected as someone who got things done,” Portman said. And Taft, like Portman, was “a boring Midwesterner.” Portman embraced the heritage. He requested Taft’s old desk on the Senate floor (it had been assigned to Al Franken) and settled into Taft’s old office in the Russell building. He celebrated Taft in his first Senate speech.

Contrast that with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who sits at Clay’s desk but used his maiden speech to denounce Clay, “the Great Compromiser” — for compromising.

Portman’s politics are no less conservative than Paul’s, but the uncompromising approach is foreign to Portman. “We’ve now got to pull back, all of us, from our purity test and come up with how we get something done here that deals with the underlying fiscal problem,” he told me. “This is a time in our country’s history when we have to figure out how to focus on results or we will fall further behind.”

Though Portman signed an anti-tax pledge, he sees the possibility for more tax revenue as part of an overall tax-reform package. He also sees “hope around the corner” that the debt standoff can be resolved.

“Some of these people who are unbending and unwilling to work together,” he said, “see a result that will come years from now as a result of changing the country more fundamentally. I just don’t think we can afford right now not to focus on getting things done.”

Here’s hoping the unbending will heed the bland Ohioan who carries Bob Taft’s torch.

danamilbank@washpost.com

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