By Michael Abramowitz and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
President Bush selected a veteran of the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress to become the new head of the White House budget office after current Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman announced yesterday that he was stepping down.
Portman enjoyed good relationships with both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill, and some Democrats said the appointment of former Iowa representative Jim Nussle, an aggressive partisan in his tenure in Congress, is another indication of Bush's intent to confront congressional Democrats over tax and spending issues in the final 18 months of his term.
In making his announcement, Portman, 51, said he wanted to spend more time with his wife and three children, who have remained in suburban Cincinnati since he came to Washington 14 years ago as a lawmaker. But he also confirmed that he is considering a run for governor of Ohio in three years.
Appearing with Portman and Nussle at the White House, Bush praised both men for their dedication to fiscal conservatism. Bush said Portman has "put Democratic leaders in Congress on notice that I will veto bills with excessive levels of spending" while curbing the special projects known as earmarks.
In Nussle, Bush will be acquiring a budget director likely to be an equally enthusiastic partner in his unfolding battle against the Democrats over spending. While Bush acquiesced to much of the new federal spending added by GOP leaders when they controlled Congress, he is threatening to veto spending bills being crafted by Democrats because they exceed his proposed budget framework.
While Portman has been an internal proponent of the veto strategy, he is also admired across party lines for his expertise and diplomacy. Nussle, by contrast, appears likely to be greeted as a more conventional partisan, dating back to his background as a Republican firebrand in the years leading up to the party's takeover of Congress.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said in an interview that Nussle is not popular among Democrats, who view him as "an intense partisan more given to confrontation than cooperation." Conrad said "he's coming here with baggage" and could have problems with his confirmation.
White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten, himself a former budget director, said in an interview that Nussle's appointment is a sign that the administration intends to "hew closely to the low-tax, low-spending routes that are part of Republican orthodoxy."
With Nussle, Bolten added, "you'll find a strong fiscal conservative very much in line with the president's priorities." House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) also praised the appointment: "I know he'll work with House Republicans closely -- just as Rob did -- to reform the way Washington spends taxpayer dollars, and to fight against wasteful and excessive spending."
But House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) was notably cool in his comments about Nussle when asked about the nomination yesterday. While lavishly praising Portman, all he would say of Bush's nominee to be the new OMB director is that "Mr. Nussle is a Dane." Both Hoyer and Nussle are of Danish ancestry.
Nussle, 46, was part of the "Gang of Seven," a group of young GOP reformers who sought to embarrass the Democratic leadership. In 1991, he attracted attention when he put a paper bag over his head on the House floor to protest the Democrats' handling of overdrafts at the House bank. When Republicans took over the House in 1994, Nussle was named chairman of the transition.
In 2001, Nussle became chairman of the House budget committee, where he helped draft the blueprint for Bush's signature tax bills, both that year and in 2003. His loyalty to Bush's budget vision led to conflicts with the more reluctant Senate, and Congress failed to agree on an overall spending plan during three of his six years as chairman. Nussle was Iowa's Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2006 but lost that race to Democrat Chet Culver.
Portman served six terms in Congress before joining the Bush administration as U.S. trade representative in 2005. He switched to the budget office in spring 2006, when he was hailed as a man who could improve ties between a sometimes imperial president and an increasingly surly Republican Congress. Last fall, when Democrats took over, the well-liked Portman was welcomed as one of the few members of the administration with whom Democrats felt a measure of trust.
Portman has not shied from confrontation, however. He helped lead negotiations over the most recent Iraq spending bill, persuading Democrats to abandon $4 billion in add-ons for domestic programs.
Bolten said he had been hoping that Portman would stay for the entire administration but has known for several months that he wanted to move on. "He has compelling family reasons," he said. "There's no hidden agenda there."
Portman will remain in Washington through early August, leaving Nussle to begin crafting Bush's final budget. Portman said he has no immediate job plans. Several experts in Ohio politics said it will also be useful for Portman to go home, expand his contacts -- and distance himself from an administration that is deeply unpopular in the bellwether state.
Portman dismissed that suggestion and said he is prepared to defend his record as an ardent advocate of low taxes and free trade in a state that has been battered by the loss of manufacturing jobs. "People judge you based on who you are and what you've done in politics," Portman said, adding that "my 12 years in Congress probably would be more relevant" to Ohio voters than his service to Bush.
Staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.