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Rob Portman: What a GOP Senate would do

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Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has been preparing a Senate agenda in the event the GOP takes the Senate. But contrary to earlier reports emanating from a breakfast he held with the Christian Science Monitor, his vision is ambitious and concrete. In a phone interview yesterday Portman told me, “I have been working for some time on a Jobs for America plan. This is what we can do.” Portman has been getting buy-in from the entire Senate caucus. “That is a good fiscal and economic plan,” he tells me. “We can get everyone on board, from Sen. [Ted] Cruz to Sen. [Susan] Collins.”

The plan outlines seven major initiatives: a health-care plan to replace Obamacare; fiscal restraint (including a balanced budget amendment and spending reductions); a robust domestic energy development plan; tax reform; regulatory reform; education and retraining redesign; and trade authority to expand jobs. While not laid out in legislative language, the Obamacare alternative would include allowing insurance purchase across state lines, risk pools for small business, a refundable tax credit for individuals to purchase their own insurance, health-care spending accounts and malpractice reform.

It is no secret that the GOP leadership resists putting out more detailed proposals, while reformers argue that, as the Republicans did in 1994 with the Contract With America, Republicans should show the voters what they will get with a GOP Senate — at least what a GOP Senate would vote on. Moreover, once the GOP Senate tries to vote to repeal Obamacare, it will need an alternative to avoid the claim that the senators are just “taking away” people’s insurance.

Judging from his speeches around the country, Portman is in the “be specific” camp. He likes to talk about “constructive conservatism,” which includes a number of anti-poverty initiatives. “I’m not here today to tell you government doesn’t have a role to play,” he told a Cleveland audience recently. “It does, but it needs to be the right role. It needs to be a role that supports state and local government as it fashions programs that work, supports the efforts of grassroots and community organizations on the ground, encouraging solutions that are proven and evidence-based, spreading best practices — information about what works and what doesn’t, using federal funds to leverage more local government and nonprofit investment.” He explained, “I call this approach constructive conservatism.”

If it sounds familiar, it is because many other reformers including Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) are working on similar initiatives. For Portman, that means addressing addiction, criminal recidivism and help for at-risk youth. Portman sees a perfect opening to try out some of these ideas. “The Obama economy is great for rich people,” he notes. “It’s terrible for everybody else.”

Coincidentally, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) spoke yesterday about the GOP House agenda. There was quite a bit of overlap with Portman’s plans. He says Republicans should focus on five things: tax reform, regulatory reform, legal reform, fiscal restraint and education reform. On the last item, he noted: “The bad news is that we know too many children still aren’t learning. And many aren’t learning because they’re sentenced to attend a struggling school. That’s why we created the first federally-funded private school choice initiative in America, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. I’ll tell you what: It is succeeding beyond even our highest expectations. 97 percent graduating from high school. A 92 percent approval rating among parents. Why wouldn’t we go ahead and start expanding this initiative to the rest of the country?” It seems to be the case that they GOP has good ideas and reform plans; the public just doesn’t know about them.

I asked Portman whether he would recommend using reconciliation, which avoids the 60-vote threshold, to achieve policy goals the way the Democrats rammed through Obamacare. “Reconciliation would be great,” he says brightly. ” We could do one for spending, one for revenue and one for the debt limit. We ought to do that.” That said, if legislators proceed in that fashion, he cautions that any tax bill, like the Bush tax cuts, would expire after a 10-year window. Nevertheless, forcing a vote and laying their cards on the table even if Obama will veto it sets up a big contrast.

This is critical not only to hold the Senate in 2016 when six GOP senators from states Obama won will be on the ballot, but also to shape the 2016 election. “If we don’t get the majority in 2014, we are in deep trouble,” he says. “We need our own aggressive policy or it will be tough to win in 2016.” Indeed, more years in the minority throwing sand in the gears and waging hand-to-hand combat with the Democrats will not help the GOP’s image.

On national security, he says that the GOP caucus has discussed reexamining defense spending during its weekly policy lunch. He does not doubt that there are still savings to be had at the Pentagon. However, he says, “We’re getting to the point where there is nowhere else to cut. We’ve cut to the bone.” He objects to budgeting defense by simply plugging in a number unrelated to our national security. He asks: “What is the priority? What do they need?” We’re getting to a dangerous point he says when “we don’t have the ability to project force.” What about a vote on Iran sanctions? Portman replies instantaneously, “Absolutely.” He is confident that there would be a strong bipartisan majority. He repeats, “That’s very, very doable.”

Whether the Senate will keep the revised filibuster rules is an open question. Some members plainly want to stick it to the Democrats to give them a sense of the ramifications of changing Senate protocol. Others warn that this is bad for the institution and could come back to haunt the Republicans if they turn around and lose the Senate in 2016. Nevertheless, Portman says there will be a return to the pre-Harry Reid days when debate was had on the floor and amendments were freely offered.

As for his presidential prospects, Portman is busy right now raising money and traveling the country for Senate candidates. He nevertheless leaves the door wide open. “I will look at it again. I’ll see if there is someone who can win, someone who can bring people together.” If not, Portman says he would consider running himself. Contrary to his image, Portman is a lively figure who loves to talk policy but is intensely focused on how to win and how to keep the GOP attractive to middle America. The GOP should keep that approach in mind next year and when selecting a presidential nominee.