Budget Chief Seeks Hill Allies
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Rob Portman was headed to Capitol Hill, eager to listen. Democrats had just won control of the House and Senate. Portman, the former Republican congressman who now leads the White House budget office, was diving right into the troubled waters of entitlement reform.
His mission: Persuade Democrats to help rein in the skyrocketing costs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, one of President Bush's top fiscal priorities.
"First, we're going to listen. We're in a listening mode," Portman said as his SUV sped along Pennsylvania Avenue. "The president wants to listen. He wants to hear what the leaders on Capitol Hill think is the best way to go."
But when Portman arrived at the Capitol, Rep. John S. Tanner (D-Tenn.), an old friend from Portman's days on the House Ways and Means Committee, was not willing to do much talking.
"I told him to stay in touch," Tanner said of their mid-November meeting. "Whether or not we can get something concrete done in the next two years, I just don't know."
Hired in the spring of 2006 to direct the Office of Management and Budget, Portman was hailed as a man who could improve ties between a sometimes imperial president and an increasingly cranky Congress, then in Republican hands. On Nov. 7, his job changed dramatically. Now the six-term congressman from Ohio has to sell the fiscal policies of a weakened and unpopular president to a bunch of bitter and distrustful Democrats.
In many ways, Bush could not have picked a better person for the job. The boyish and earnest Portman seems to be as widely admired among his former Democratic colleagues as he is by Republicans. House Democrats describe him as a reasonable guy, a committed problem-solver and an honest broker. After six years of presidential neglect, Democrats say Portman is one of the few members of the administration who has established a record of trust with the newly empowered Democratic Party.
"Rob is a very competent, pleasant individual to deal with. I enjoy working with him," said Tanner, a founding member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of conservative Democrats. "There's a level of trust that is pretty comforting."
But just because Democrats return Portman's phone calls does not mean they are ready to help him tame the projected growth of Social Security and federal health-care programs, which serve millions of Americans and threaten to consume a sharply escalating share of the nation's economic output as the population ages.
"If he's given the ability to really negotiate, Democrats will feel comfortable negotiating," said Sen.-elect Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), who teamed with Portman in the House to pass legislation that expanded tax incentives for retirement savings. But "there's got to be a give and take," he added. "Portman is willing to do that. The question is whether his boss is going to do that."
Bush's failed proposal to divert some Social Security taxes into private accounts "cannot be part of the solution," said Cardin, who come January will move into a seat on the Senate Budget Committee.
For now, Portman is optimistic. The coming year, he said, offers "a window of opportunity."