Senator Rob Portman On The House Leadership Race: “We Need A Messenger Out There”
HH: Joining me to talk about why it matters, United States Senator Rob Portman, himself an alumnus of the House. Senator, welcome, it’s always a great pleasure to talk to you.
RP: Hugh, thanks for having me on again, my friend. How are you?
HH: I’m great. I’ve got to ask, before I get to the House stuff, how do you think Cleveland’s chances look for the convention?
RP: I think pretty darn good. The committee was up there the week before last, and they reported that they loved Cleveland. They were well taken care of, and you know, folks in Cleveland really want it there. It would be terrific for Ohio, and I think it would be great for the Republican Party.
HH: Yeah, I spent a day after Johnny Manziel was drafted walking around the downtown, and the new convention center is fabulous.
HH: And it’s just…
RP: Yeah, it’s a beautiful city now. It’s come back, and in some respects, it’s the heartland, you know? So I think it’s a better choice than some of the other cities. Of course, that’s my bias.
HH: Well, now Senator, let’s go to this earthquake, Eric Cantor earthquake. First of all, a lot of assessments and analysis out there, what do you think happened?
RP: Well look, every district’s different, every state’s different. I don’t have the inside scoop. I do think he ought to fire his pollster.
RP: To me, part of what happened was expectations were way out of whack, that I think they said he’s going to win by 20 or 30 points. But I think immigration played a role. I think there are probably some other factors, that, you know, I’m just not close enough to the politics of the district to know about. But at the same time that he lost, you know, Lindsey Graham, my colleague in the Senate, won easily, who has taken a more active role on immigration reform, and a more pro-immigration form of stance. So I’m not sure if the immigration issue alone was the reason.
HH: Oh, and Neel Kashkari a week ago crushed an original Minuteman, Tim Donnelly in California. So it’s not, I don’t see it anywhere in the country, and I think actually, Republicans have got 75% unanimity on border security plus regularization, long path to citizenship if any, and there’s just not that much controversy. I really don’t see that much controversy, but let me ask you about the leadership election, though. It’s going to be Jeb Hensarling v. Kevin McCarthy. Do you have an opinion on that?
RP: Well, they’re both good men and friends of mine, and I think they’d both be terrific leaders. Jeb and I worked a lot together on the supercommittee. It ended up being not so super, but we held the line on tax increases and worked together on ways to trim spending, and I know him well. And I think Kevin’s done a good job, you know, rounding up the votes to try to send legislation over to the Senate. Unfortunately, in the United States Senate, Hugh, we’ve got a real problem, because the House keeps passing good things to help grow the economy, reduce spending, and yet in the Senate, Harry Reid refuses to bring it to the floor for a vote. But I think Kevin’s done a good job with that.
HH: Well, if you were a Defense hawk, is there any appreciable difference between the two of them?
RP: You know, I’m not close enough to know. I know Jeb is, like me, a deficit hawk, but also believes in a strong national defense. I think what the President is doing to our national defense is cutting too deeply, and he’s cutting the wrong areas. I do think there is plenty of waste in the Pentagon, and we need to get at that. And that’s probably where Jeb would come out.
HH: You’re kind of a policy wonk. That’s your reputation, Senator. It’s a good one to have. Of these two men, who’s the wonk?
RP: Oh, both of them like policy. I think it’s hard to say. If Paul Ryan had won, I think Paul would have won out on that category.
RP: But I think Paul’s not interested in the leadership post.
HH: No, he’s not. Now how important is this, because I know it’s inside baseball, but I’m trying to educate my audience that eight years ago, we made a choice between Boehner and Shadegg, and the party would have gone a very different way under John Shadegg than it did under John Boehner. And what’s done is done, and people can, you know, I’m not going to second-guess that. But how important is this choice?
RP: Well, John Boehner will stay as Speaker, and so it’s an important choice, but not as important as the Speakership. And by the way, I think John Boehner has been dealt a tough hand with Harry Reid and Barack Obama, and I think he’s done the best he could, again, giving us legislation in the Senate we ought to be passing, but we’re not because of Harry Reid. But I think one thing that is important is that we as Republicans have somebody in that job, and in all of our leadership jobs, who get out and talk to you, Hugh, and talk to others about why this conservative Republican message is the right thing to grow the economy, help folks who are hurting right now, and deal with some of these really amazing incompetencies you see in the administration, the most recent one being this Bergdahl trade. You know, the fact that they are choosing to trade five hardened Taliban operatives to trade for Sgt. Bergdahl, and without going to Congress, which they’re required to do under law. So we need somebody out there who is willing to yes, help get the votes, but really, we need a messenger out there, someone who will get out and tell the American people what’s really going on, and help to encourage folks to stand up and be counted, and to get a Republican majority in the Senate, and to begin to turn the country around.
HH: That was a very troubling hearing with Secretary Hagel. I watched a lot of it, because again, I was air bound, and very, very troubling. I also have to ask you, the VA bill troubles me because it’s moving so fast. I had six people in for two hours last night, a lot of experts, Lowell Brown’s one of my law partners from Arent Fox, knows this stuff cold.
HH: And they’re very worried that we’re moving too fast. What do you think?
RP: I tend to agree. I think there’s some good things in the bill on choice. As you know, I’m a guy that believes in giving people more choices in health care generally. I think people who are not able to get what they need at the VA ought to be able to go into the private sector health care market. I also think the accountability measures are good in there. And you know, we need to be able to hire and fire people much more easily in the federal government generally, but certainly at the VA, I mean, we’ve seen unbelievable fraud, not just wait lists, but hiding people on the wait list. So people’s heads need to roll, and there needs to be accountability. So that’s all good. And then there’s some stuff in there about the way in which the VA is managed, the information technology to bring private sector expertise in, which is good. But I’m concerned about the cost, Hugh. I don’t know if you saw, but the Congressional Budget Office gave a very late cost estimate, and it may be wrong, but I think it’s moving really too fast to do a proper cost analysis.
HH: That’s, I hope it slows down. But now let me ask about the biggest story of the day. Iraq is in crisis. Mosul has fallen, Tikrit has fallen. Syria, it looks like a grand jihad between Shia and Sunni across the region. And first question is, Secretary of State Clinton’s out talking about her book. The status of forces agreement was on her watch, the failure to obtain one. Ought she to be asked questions about that breakdown?
RP: Absolutely. Absolutely. Look, I can think of no place in the world where America is better off right now. I wish I could, and maybe I’m missing one. Someone said how about Burma, and I said well, maybe, you know, but I’m looking at what’s going on in Syria, I’m looking at what’s going on in Iran with their rush toward a nuclear weapon. I look at what’s happening in the South China Sea, and where China is being more aggressive. I’m looking at what Putin has done in Ukraine. I was just over there, Hugh, and as you know, this is the first time you’ve had an illegal annexation like this of someone else’s territory since World War II over there. It’s unbelievable what’s happening today. And on top of that, what you say, is Iraq. Things fell apart in Iraq in part because we left no troops there to be able to respond to terrorists, and no status of forces agreement to be able to work with the Maliki government to try to avoid some of these problems.
HH: Yeah, that’s a nightmare. I didn’t know you’d been in Ukraine. In my opinion, you know, the Patriot batteries we send around are like the keystone of deterring people.
HH: Are we doing enough export of Patriots?
RP: I think we should do more, and specifically, I think we should go back to Poland, and they’re willing to do it, and to put in missile defense. It would be both for short term, which is Patriot, but also long term missiles. And I think we ought to have a bigger NATO military presence in Eastern Europe generally. I would like to move some troops out of Western Europe, with all due respect. We’ve still got lots of troops there, probably 65,000 of them, and that’s not where the action is. Where we’re worried is countries like Romania and Poland and the Baltics, and certainly Ukraine would be comforted by us having a bigger presence in the region.
HH: So we have 30 months to go, Senator Portman, and I’m concerned that the administration is feckless, disorganized, and C Team going to D Team, going to E team, and the media not, I mean, this Iraq story is very bad. How rocky are the next 30 months going to be?
RP: Well, I am worried about it, on foreign policy issues as we talked about, but I’m also worried about it on the domestic side, because this economy continues to be weak. As I said earlier, we’re just not seeing the kind of opportunities that we could have if we just made some very simple changes on some policy issues, like regulatory relief, like tax reform, you know, things to get the economy moving, like Keystone XL Pipeline. So I do worry. I’m also worried about the President going around Congress. You know, there’s many instances of that. I would say EPA is one, because in essence, they’re putting cap and trade through now through the regulatory side. But certainly, what’s happened at the NLRB with these appointments, that’s before the Supreme Court now, what’s happening with Obamacare, that I believe there are 23 changes that they have made to the legislation that should have gone through Congress. So it’s kind of scary, and most recently, this issue of the Taliban leaders being released from Guantanamo, in violation of specific law, both in an authorization bill, and a spending bill, an appropriation bill.
RP: And so I’m trying to put together a national effort on this one, Hugh, to let the President know that you know, you can’t just continue to ignore Congress.
HH: Yeah, you can’t just get an Office of Legal Counsel opinion, wave it around, and blow off explicit language. Otherwise, President Reagan could have funded the Contras, and they would have objected. Rob Portman, it’s always a great time to talk to you, Senator. Come back early and often. I hope you’re right about Cleveland and the GOP convention.
End of interview.