Prospects are growing for a Republican takeover of the Senate in November, and if that happens, Washington could defy expectations and actually get things done.
That’s the word from Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio, a leader of the center-right in the upper chamber – and, he acknowledges, a potential presidential candidate in 2016. Senator Portman identifies “common ground” between Republicans and Democrats on a range of issues, from energy and trade to tax reform and regulatory reform, and he predicts President Obama would come around.
“By getting a Republican majority, I do believe it would get the president to the table on some of these issues,” said Portman, speaking Thursday at a press breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. “It would also require Republicans to work with the president, to find common ground, on these and other issues.”
In short, he suggests the next two years could “actually be productive,” and not a continuation of the gridlock that has come to define Washington politics and disgust Americans.
“I know I may sound naive, since everyone has decided that the next two years are going to be all about 2016,” Portman said. “But I look at what’s happened over the years. When we have divided government, that’s when we’ve done tax reform, that’s when we’ve done entitlement reform, that’s when we’ve helped to move the economy forward when we take on these big issues.”
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky has said he would run the chamber more cooperatively toward the opposing party than has the current majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada. Though Senator McConnell has also talked about working to undo the president’s agenda, starting with Obamacare. McConnell would also have to watch the tea party contingent on his right flank, just as House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio has been hamstrung at times by the far right.
Still, Portman says he’s talked to McConnell and other members of the Republican leadership, and remains convinced that by working with Democrats, progress can be made on a range of issues during the first 50 days of the next Congress.
“This is not something that’s impossible to accomplish, because we’ve already had votes on many of these issues,” Portman says. “We know where people stand.”
Portman lays out four areas with potential:
• Keystone XL pipeline. The Obama administration has delayed a decision on whether to approve the final leg of a controversial oil-sands pipeline running from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast. But Portman predicts if Republicans win the Senate majority, they could muster “close to a veto-proof majority” on the issue in the House and Senate. It should be coupled with an energy-efficiency bill, he says.
• Trade promotion authority. This would allow the president to demand an up-or-down vote in Congress on trade deals, a “fast track” that keeps deals from collapsing through amendments. Portman served as US trade representative under President George W. Bush and says the lack of fast track (which expired in 2007) is hurting the US economy. Congressional factions on both the left and right object to fast track and have prevented it from passing.
“That’s something we could do, and do very quickly,” Portman said. “And the president, in my view, would sign it.”
• Regulatory reform. One bill addresses permitting. Another would ensure that independent agencies have to go through cost-benefit analysis. A third would tighten the cost-benefit analysis on executive-branch agencies. Portman says such reforms would help the economy, by creating more certainty.
• Corporate tax reform. The growth in so-called corporate inversions has brought new attention to the US corporate tax code, which incentivizes US companies to acquire foreign firms and move their corporate address overseas – thereby lowering their taxes. Portman calls Obama’s solution, focused just on inversions, a “band-aid,” and says reform of the whole code is needed.
“If we don’t do that, we will continue to have American companies taking jobs and investment abroad,” Portman said. But he sees “a consensus about lowering the rate and broadening the base. It won’t be easy, but there’s a consensus about that general approach.”
And what about Portman in 2016? He admits to having a certain affection for New Hampshire, home of the first presidential primary.
"My daughter goes to school up there, so part of my heart is in New Hampshire,” he said. His daughter is a sophomore at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., Portman’s alma mater.
For now, Portman says, he’s focused on 2014 and doing his job as a senator. That includes helping Republicans get elected to the Senate, as a vice chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
On the 2016 presidential race, he said, “I’ll take a look at it after the election.”