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Budget Chief Seeks Hill Allies

Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman, right, with Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., is widely admired, but some Democrats wonder how much negotiating power President Bush will give him to work with them.
Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman, right, with Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., is widely admired, but some Democrats wonder how much negotiating power President Bush will give him to work with them. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)

"We have a president who only has two years and is not running again, with a Congress that, I think, is increasingly recognizing the budget challenge," Portman said. "Before the election, there was not a strong interest in joining with the president on this kind of an issue because it, understandably, didn't seem like the right thing for [Democrats] to be doing. But I think that's changed."

Portman said that he and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., Bush's point man on entitlement reform, have spoken since Nov. 7 to "all the key Democrats." Portman said he spent an hour with incoming House Budget Committee Chairman John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.), talking about "everything from the alternative minimum tax to the president's tax cuts" to the budget implications of the Democrats' "Six in '06" policy agenda.

Portman also has sought advice from old friends such as Tanner and Cardin, along with other Democrats who are "not afraid to take on these retirement issues," including Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del.) and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), who won reelection as an independent.

And Portman is finding ways to be nice. He said the White House hopes for the first time to give Congress its request for supplemental war spending along with the rest of the budget in February. And both Portman and Paulson have accepted an invitation from the incoming Ways and Means Committee chairman, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), to address members at a committee retreat early next year.

"I love Charlie. I'm happy to do that," Portman said. "I was honored he asked me."

In the view of some political analysts, Portman's job may be easier under divided government because Democrats now have an interest in making progress on entitlements. So far, Portman said, no one has flatly rejected his overtures.

Still, several Democrats said the administration has a long way to go to prove its goodwill and to establish a forum where they can share ideas without fear of suffering political consequences.

"We have a bit of an Alphonse-and-Gaston routine right now of who's going to go first," Tanner said, invoking the cartoon Frenchmen famously stymied by unctuous politeness. "We've got to figure out how to get a level of trust. This is radioactive in terms of political fallout."


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