Sen. Portman Warns Biden Against Going It Alone On COVID-19 Relief

Jan 28, 2021
Originally published on January 28, 2021 6:35 pm

Updated 5 p.m. ET

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, a Republican who announced he won't seek reelection in 2022, warned the Biden administration and congressional Democrats not to move forward on a large new round of coronavirus relief legislation without GOP support, saying such a move "poisons the well."

Portman, who is part of a bipartisan Senate group in talks with the administration, told NPR's Susan Davis on Thursday he believes acting without Republican input or support of the bill "would set the tone for the administration that would be really problematic for the country and frankly, bad for the Biden administration."

President Biden has introduced a $1.9 trillion package that would send billions to state and local governments, provide additional funding for distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and boost the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Democrats hold the slimmest possible majority in the Senate, which means to skip a bipartisan deal, they would need either to kill the legislative filibuster, a move that would blow up the rules of the Senate, or use a process called reconciliation, which would allow them to get around the 60-vote threshold.

"It's just wrong," Portman said. "I think it's bad for the administration, and I've made that point repeatedly to the White House in the last several days, including last night. We'll see what they do. But I think it's much better to work with us."

Biden administration officials have said they prefer to work across party lines on coronavirus relief but won't take any legislative route off the table.

Future of the Republican Party

Portman predicts former President Donald Trump won't run for the White House again in 2024, saying, "I just don't see it. But maybe I'm wrong."

"My hope is that we'll see people step up who have the ability to bring this coalition together and to have a positive message that focuses on the policy and these ideals and does so in a respectful way," he said. "I think people are sometimes attracted to the divisiveness and the controversy and the coarseness of our political language these days. But that's not what's good for the country."

Portman handily won reelection in 2016, and his surprising retirement announcement on Monday launched speculation of who will run to replace him in what will likely be a competitive race.

He said he's not sure if conservative Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a Trump ally, would run for his seat.

"He's in the House now and has a significant role there," Portman said. "I just think it's up to the Ohio voters to decide who's going to succeed me." His prediction was correct: A spokesperson for Jordan's campaign confirmed to NPR hours after Portman's interview that the lawmaker will not run to fill Portman's seat.

Concerning the No. 3 House Republican, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, Portman is more effusive. Cheney has come under fire from many in her party after she supported impeaching Trump over inciting the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Portman this week joined most of his GOP caucus in a vote indicating that a Senate impeachment trial of a former president is unconstitutional.

Calling her a "friend," Portman said that if it were up to him, he would vote to keep Cheney in leadership.

"She's a very consistent Republican, at least in the tradition of our party," he said. "I think she does a good job, not just for the House but as the spokesperson for the Republican Party nationally."

The difficulty of finding middle ground

Portman cited "partisan gridlock" in his announcement Monday explaining why he wouldn't run for reelection in 2022.

"I just think people are being pushed further and further to the right or to the left, and it's harder to find people willing to do the hard work to find that middle ground," he told Davis. "I think it is not rewarded as much."

In terms of the role of more mainstream Republicans such as himself, Portman pointed to a quote from a GOP strategist that was brought to his attention — "If you want to get on, you know, MSNBC or Fox and throw red meat, you know, it's a great time to be in office. So if you want to try to get things done, it's a hard time," Portman paraphrased. "He used more colorful language than that."

He added: "The point is, I think he's probably right. It's just a different environment, even in the last 10 years since I've been in the United States Senate and certainly in the last 30 since I first got working in the first Bush administration."

Portman doesn't lay the blame for partisanship solely at Trump's feet.

"He has exacerbated the problem in the sense that the tweets, the incivility, the coarseness of language and so on are part of it," he said. "But let's face it, it's been going on for a while."

Capitol attack

As the top Republican on the panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack, Portman said he thinks the probe will review Trump's role and that of any members of Congress in inciting the riot, saying there are "deeper questions" about why people were "incentivized to do this illegal act."

He also said he's open to creating a bipartisan Sept. 11-style commission to study the attack.

"Everyone has pretty short memories these days, and I don't want this to be forgotten," he said. "We need to remember what happened, the severity of it, and understand how to avoid it from happening again."

On Trump's impeachment trial

Portman is undecided on how he will vote but expressed concerns over the precedent of holding a trial for someone who is no longer in office.

"I've got a duty as a juror and I think senators should listen to the arguments on both sides before they make their decision. That's what I intend to do," he said, noting he wants to hear arguments on the question of the trial's constitutionality.

But he added: "Right up to the end, of course, a president needs to be accountable."

The second question he'll be considering, he said, is whether convicting Trump would create more polarization in the country.

"Bringing the country together is important right now. We need to heal. And, you know, the question is, how do we do that best, and do we further the divisions and the polarization and create even more problems by one approach or another?"

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Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman shocked his party when he announced Monday that he will not run for reelection next year. The senator sat down this morning with NPR congressional correspondent and NPR Politics podcast co-host Susan Davis to discuss his decision to retire the upcoming Senate impeachment trial and the prospect of working with the Biden administration. Sue Davis joins us now.

Hey, Sue.


CHANG: So how did Senator Portman explain why he decided to announce his retirement just - what? - days into this new administration?

DAVIS: Yeah. You know, he said he was getting tired of the partisanship in Washington. He's known for an ability to work across the aisle to get bills passed. He's a traditional kind of conservative, and he's been a critic at times of former President Trump. He also hasn't ruled out voting to convict Trump in the upcoming Senate trial. So I wanted to talk to him about his thought process there. And here's part of our conversation.

ROB PORTMAN: I've got a duty as a juror. And I think senators should listen to the arguments on both sides before they make their decision. That's what I intend to do. I've also said two other things. One is that I do have questions about the constitutionality of holding a Senate trial to remove someone from office who is now a private citizen. And I think that's a dangerous precedent. And then second is just, you know, what's the right answer here in terms of bringing the country together?

DAVIS: But isn't there also a danger and a precedent that says a president can act in the way that Trump did in that lame duck period? And if you take the argument that they cannot be convicted - he was impeached while still in office - that you do set up a precedent where there is essentially a lawlessness to what a president can do in that time period after he loses election. That seems equally as dangerous to me.

PORTMAN: Yeah. I think it's a good question. And I think, you know, right up to the end, of course, you know, a president needs to be accountable. So how do you do that? And that's a challenge. I mean, obviously, the House did impeach prior to his removal from office. So there has been that reprimand that's already, you know, in place. But now he's gone and has been gone for a while. And by the time we get to the Senate trial, it'll be even longer. And I think that that raises, again, a serious question. Do we want to go back and convict presidents from previous times? And I think that, you know, that is going to sow, you know, more division, in my view.

DAVIS: So this raises the question, though, of what role Donald Trump is going to play in the party going forward. Lindsey Graham this week said he wants to see the party make a comeback and to grow, and in order to do that, quote, "we're going to need Trump, and Trump needs us." Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, is down in Mar-a-Lago today meeting with the president. What role would you like to see Trump play in the Republican Party? And should the Republican Party be a welcome place for Donald Trump?

PORTMAN: Well, I'm not running again (laughter).

DAVIS: Yeah, that's why I ask.

PORTMAN: No. Look. I think our party is in much better shape in terms of policies and even ideals than it is in terms of the personality issues and the style, I'll say, that we referenced earlier. In other words, when you look at what happened in 2020, you know, some pundits have said, gosh, the Republican Party is in big trouble. I mean, just the opposite.

There were some positive aspects there that we've got to be sure that we continue to emphasize going forward as a party. And that means, I think, that you try to keep everybody in the coalition, including a lot of folks who - blue-collar workers and others who, you know, joined the party because they liked what Donald Trump was saying, you know, about some of those issues. So I think there's a way to keep it together, but we'll see. I mean, obviously, if there was a new party founded, which some are talking about, that would definitely divide the party.

DAVIS: Would you like to see Trump run in 2024? Do you think the party could be better served by a different nominee?

PORTMAN: Well, I don't think he's going to run in 2024. I think - I mean, maybe that's an easy answer. But I think it's kind of an academic question. I just don't see it. But maybe I'm wrong.

DAVIS: Is your vote as gettable as Joe Biden would like it to be, and if it is, where do you see this possibility for Republicans to work with Democrats?

PORTMAN: I was very encouraged by his inaugural address and the notion that we can figure out how to get back to a time when we're working together as Republicans and Democrats. And yet the actions have not been consistent. And specifically the top issue that he has identified, which I agree with the president on this, which is dealing with COVID-19, you know, they sent us a $1.9 trillion bill on the heels of us just passing several weeks ago a $900 billion passage of a bill that was the second-biggest appropriation in the history of the country.

And now they want to use what's called reconciliation, which allows you to go around the 60-vote majority, super majority in the Senate. And apparently people are interested in putting things there that have nothing to do with reconciliation, which has to be about revenue. It's just wrong. And I think it's bad for the administration. And I've made that point repeatedly to the White House in the last several days, including last night. We'll see what they do.

CHANG: So, Sue, it sounds like Portman's saying there could be serious consequences for the Biden administration if they choose to go forward with their relief package without seeking Republican support.

DAVIS: And it looks like that's what they're going to do. And Portman told me it could poison the well, not just for the next few weeks, but maybe the first two years, he said, of the Biden administration and their ability to get Republican support for any part of their agenda.

CHANG: That is NPR's Susan Davis. Thank you, Sue.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.