They came to the Senate together amid less fanfare than some of their 2010 classmates, with lower profiles that didn’t lead to presidential bids.
But Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio) and Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.) were intellectual forces inside the Republican caucus from the moment they took the oath in January 2011.
Portman, a former White House budget director, and Toomey, a former Wall Street executive who ran the anti-tax Club for Growth, got picked seven months into office for a special committee to cut the debt. They sit next to each other on the Finance Committee, the crown jewel of tax and health-care policy.
And they both found ways to win reelection from neighboring states by building a unique coalition that included suburban professionals and rural conservatives, latching onto niche local issues that resonated through the din of President Trump’s boisterous campaign.
Now, six months into their second term, Portman and Toomey stand apart on the most critical issue preventing a deal to repeal the law that helped launch their careers, the Affordable Care Act.
Both men ran sharply against Obamacare. But now, Portman has become the de facto leader of moderates and mainstream conservatives from states that accepted the law’s expanded federal funding for Medicaid coverage. Toomey has galvanized conservatives behind his proposal to cut that program and provide what some consider the most dramatic curtailment of an entitlement program in a generation.
The dispute between Portman, 61, and Toomey, 55, has grown contentious behind closed doors. Neither senator lacks for self-confidence, and they have jousted over both the policy and the political fallout of those ideas, often talking past each other in a bid to win support from their fellow Republicans.
There are other issues that could still derail the proposal from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has delayed an initial test vote on the nearly 150-page draft until at least mid-July. But there is simply no path for victory unless these two senators, so similar in many ways, bridge their divide on this core issue.
The two senators seem to have emerged from their 2016 reelections with vastly different outlooks.
“I continue to have real concerns about the Medicaid policies in this bill, especially those that impact drug treatment at a time when Ohio is facing an opioid epidemic,” Portman said this week, citing the issue that became his personal rallying cry last year.
“What we’re trying to do is free the states and free the marketplace to discover ever-better ways to deliver services,” Toomey said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” returning to his core, economically conservative roots.
Democrats are accusing Republicans, particularly Toomey, of shading their views last fall to win reelection in swing states without explaining how their opposition to the ACA would affect voters.
“It would have been devastating for him, there’s no ifs, ands or buts about that. That’s the problem with this election — there were promises made and everything that was promised is not being lived up to,” Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), who ran the upper chamber’s Democratic campaign arm last year, said of Toomey. Pennsylvania has more than 700,000 residents benefiting from the expanded Medicare provision. Ohio has almost the same number.
“We’ll see what the end result is,” Tester said of Portman’s hesitancy to support McConnell. “I mean, talk is cheap unless you can back it up with a vote.”
Allies to the two senators reject the idea that they hid their views of Barack Obama’s signature accomplishment as president, having cast many votes to repeal the legislation during their first term in the Senate. Toomey’s opponent tried to make his fiscally conservative views a focus of the campaign.
But Toomey blunted that conservative portrait by co-writing gun control legislation that was popular in the Philadelphia suburbs, where he far outperformed Trump and wove together a different coalition to win by less than 100,000 votes out of more than 6 million cast.
In Ohio, Portman became the face of the effort to defeat the heroin epidemic that has ravaged his state — and has now spread to every corner of the country. That cause blunted questions about his views on trade and budgets against a stumbling opponent, helping him win by more than 20 percentage points.
Neither senator publicly supported Trump’s candidacy last fall. Portman withdrew his endorsement after The Washington Post unveiled a video of Trump discussing groping women. Toomey never told voters whom he supported until polls had closed.
Yet it’s Toomey, never having won by more than two percentage points, who has taken up the conservative mantle. In the proposed phaseout of the Medicaid expansion that McConnell has floated, Toomey won a significant, long-term cap in the program’s spending. Remarkably, it’s a more conservative position than the House-passed bill — which Trump has publicly called “mean” in its treatment of the working poor.
That in turn has prompted heated discussions between Portman and Toomey, with the Ohio senator believing the position is a political loser in the Midwestern states that provided the foundation for Trump’s presidency — and McConnell’s Senate majority.
Portman has long been described as a moderate, but often in a mistaken way. His demeanor is collegial, and he’s long enjoyed a good relationship with the Capitol’s press corps. But on policy, he has been a regular McConnell ally — until now.
Portman opposed the 2013 bipartisan immigration bill, and during the 2011 special debt committee deliberations, Democrats privately gave up on Portman as a lost cause not looking for a deal while they continued to pursue Toomey’s support. They viewed Toomey as slightly more conservative and, therefore, more valuable. If he agreed to a deal, it would have attracted more buy-in from other Republicans than if it were Portman.
On Monday, as Reuters first reported, McConnell “dressed down” Portman over his current position and reminded him that as George W. Bush’s budget director, he had supported entitlement reform — and Portman shot back that he still did but said McConnell had “overreached” in this bill, sources said.
Portman has requested a $45 billion fund to battle opioids, citing a Harvard study in which $4.5 billion a year from the Medicaid expansion goes toward drug treatment.
“I still have many of those same concerns. So the Senate draft falls short and therefore I do not support it in its current form,” Portman said.