Portman provides a bridge between Bush and Congress

Former representative, now budget chief, shepherds line-item veto


WASHINGTON -- Rob Portman, President Bush's new budget chief, still practices his kayaking moves in the House of Representatives' pool.

The former Cincinnati congressman still catches himself during meetings on Capitol Hill referring to lawmakers as "we."

But his office is at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue now and, despite his roots in the legislative branch, he's squarely on the president's side of a battle between the White House and Congress over the power of the purse.

The House is to weigh in on the issue today with a vote on Bush's bid to resurrect the line-item veto, which would allow the president to reach into spending bills and single out items for removal, putting lawmakers' most prized prerogative - their ability to secure federal money, or earmarks, for their districts - in peril.

The measure faces opposition from some Republicans who say it would trample on Congress' right to decide funding matters and from Democrats who call it an empty election-year ploy to portray Bush and his party as good budget stewards after years of soaring deficits.

The outcome of today's vote is uncertain, and its prospects are murky in the Senate, where Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the Budget Committee chairman, has paired it with a broader deficit-reduction measure that stands little chance of passing.

Portman, who was brought in to burnish the president's credentials as a fiscal conservative and for his Capitol Hill ties, knows the push to enact the measure is his first big test as budget chief.

"I hope I'll be able to make good on it," Portman said of his congressional background.

Lobbying for the measure's approval, he's trading heavily on relationships developed during 12 years in the House. He has prowled Capitol hallways in search of votes and corralled business and good-government groups to pressure his former colleagues to back the measure. He worked the issue at a White House picnic last week, as members of Congress relaxed with their families and ate taquitos.

The push has opened Portman to some private ribbing from former colleagues who accuse him of forgetting his roots. But it has also earned a more friendly reception for Bush's proposals on Capitol Hill as the president is struggling to maintain his influence.

"We like Rob because we know Rob," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore, one of a group of moderate Republicans who met with Portman this week on the line-item veto measure.

Bush's budget office "has been this big, mysterious black hole at the center of the universe where no one would have access," Gilchrest said. "But Rob knows how we work - he's a kindred soul."

Portman, 50, a Bush family friend who left Congress last year to become Bush's trade representative, also knows what it takes to move controversial measures through the House.

"If you're in this job and dealing with members of Congress on a daily basis, on their particular issues, it helps to have their perspective - as long as you're not captured by it," Portman said during a brief interview yesterday in his spacious office in the White House complex. "You've got to be sure that you're representing the administration, looking out for the budget impact, but understanding where [lawmakers are] coming from is very helpful."

When Portman took his job just under a month ago, Bush's request for a form of line-item veto power seemed to be languishing amid opposition from both parties. With quiet nudging by Portman, House Republicans and a handful of Democrats scaled back the measure substantially, limiting the president's power to single out spending and special-interest tax breaks.

Congress enacted a line-item veto in 1996 at President Bill Clinton's request but the Supreme Court struck it down in 1998 as a violation of the separation of powers. Bush's proposal is for a weaker mechanism that would allow him to delay and ask Congress to reconsider individual spending items, while giving lawmakers the final say.

Portman said it would have a "chilling effect" on wasteful spending, making Congress reluctant to include earmarks that could not withstand public scrutiny.

Democratic Rep. Mark Udall of Colorado, a supporter, said the measure's chances have benefited from the budget chief's "appreciation of the culture and how to work within it, particularly when it comes to this kind of lobbying and opinion-molding. This is much more of a soft sell."

Portman's relationships in Congress, where he was one of only a handful of influential Republicans known for working with Democrats, can make for awkward moments at a time of intense partisan warfare.

He developed a close friendship with Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, working on pension legislation as members of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.

Now, Cardin is mounting a Senate bid that could pit him against Maryland's Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who has strong backing from Bush and Karl Rove. Portman won't comment on the race, but it's unlikely that he'll be campaigning for the Republican candidate.

"Ben's a good friend," Portman said.


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