By Josephine Hearn - 10/18/05 12:00 AM EDT
United States Trade Representative (USTR) Rob Portman is working hard to make good on his pledge to mend fences with Democrats after this summer’s partisan bloodbath over the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).
The affable former congressman from Ohio has visited Capitol Hill frequently this fall, holding private meetings with top Democrats and using his renowned personal appeal to try to pry open doors that slammed shut on the administration’s trade policies during the run-up to CAFTA.
Democrats and Republicans alike have high hopes that Portman’s willingness to gather input from members of Congress will translate into more Democratic votes for future free-trade agreements. CAFTA passed by a razor-thin margin after House leaders kept the vote open for an hour.
Yet, in many quarters, Democrats are skeptical. Many are still seething over Republicans’ approach to winning CAFTA, both in the bill’s lack of worker protections and in what they argue was the administration’s and congressional Republicans’ arrogant disregard in shutting them out of the legislative process. Although many welcome Portman’s presence, they have yet to see substantive changes, they said.
During an interview with The Hill, Portman reiterated his desire to consult more with Democrats, admitting that his office could have done a better job in working with Democrats on the CAFTA measure.
“I’d like to think that some of that partisanship could have been taken out of that agreement with some discussions” with members of Congress, Portman said. “We need to do a better job here at USTR. We need to get more input.”
Still, Portman blamed the stark, partisan nature of the CAFTA lobbying effort on labor unions. “Labor chose to draw the line at CAFTA,” he said.
Portman went on to say he hoped to gain the trust of members of Congress.
“Just talking and consultation isn’t the only answer. We have to be sure we have trust and confidence with each other,” he said. “I want members to feel that my office is accessible, whether it is a constituent matter or a dispute of some kind. As a former member, I know how important it is to have that.”
Portman succeeded former Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, a gruff tactician with scant interest in the cacophony of views on Capitol Hill, on April 29, only three months before CAFTA came to a vote.
Many observers felt Portman could have changed the tone of the CAFTA battle had he taken the helm earlier.
“If Rob Portman was USTR and I was ranking Democrat [on the Trade Subcommittee], that wouldn’t have happened. … I think it could have been solved,” said Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee, who considers Portman a longtime friend. Cardin replaced Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) as ranking member on the subcommittee earlier this year.
Cardin, who voted against CAFTA, as did all but 15 Democrats, also said he believes Portman will take a different tack than his predecessor.
“I think you’ll see a different strategy on dealing with particularly sensitive issues,” Cardin said. “When you use the process, you’re going to have a better bill.”
Since the CAFTA vote, Portman has had one-on-one meetings with Cardin, Levin, Rep. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on Ways and Means, as well as Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.), the ranking Democrat on the finance panel, which oversees trade issues. Portman also has met in bipartisan closed-door meetings with the House Agriculture and Ways and Means committees and in an open session with the Senate agriculture panel.
Portman plans to meet with Senate Finance on Thursday and with the New Democrat Coalition, a business-friendly, centrist Democratic group, on Oct 27.
As a former lawmaker, Portman maintains a familiarity with members that few administration officials have.
“Portman speaks their language,” said Matt Niemeyer, assistant USTR for congressional affairs. “He’s still a member. He’s a member who just happens to be the USTR.”
But so far Levin is not convinced that Portman’s charm offensive will produce more Democratic votes in favor of the administration’s trade policies.
“It’s not simply a matter of personalities,” Levin said. “I think the administration has to reassess and decide whether they want to rebuild a bipartisan foundation for trade yet. It’s an issue of substance, not personality. We appreciated his reaching out, but there has to be action.”
Levin said he was particularly disappointed that the administration was still opposed to greater protections for workers rights, an issue that Democrats have championed and that Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo recently backed for a trade pact with Andean countries.
“There’s this basic issue that has to be worked through,” Levin said. “There has to be some meaningful discussion and meeting of the minds, and that won’t happen based on what I’ve seen. It isn’t a personal difference. It wasn’t a personal difference with Zoellick. The messenger has to have the right message.”
Other Democrats are similarly convinced that little has changed at the trade representative’s office. A group of liberal House Democrats has already begun circulating a letter warning that an upcoming trade agreement with Andean countries could provoke the same unified Democratic opposition as CAFTA did.
Leaders of the New Democrat Coalition, once a dependably pro-trade bunch, aggressively opposed CAFTA and are still wary of the administration’s trade agenda.
“When we said no [to CAFTA], they went about trashing us widely, personally, and sometimes incorrectly in the trade community,” said New Democrat Co-chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.). “They were arrogant, dishonest and certainly disrespectful. They figured they would never have to deal with us again. I suspect a lot of the old guys are still around. [So] I’m still skeptical, but we’ll see what Rob has to say.”
Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif), another New Democrat co-chair, is also somewhat skeptical.
“We’re hoping that Ambassador Portman gets to run trade policy and that he gets to work with both sides of the aisle. We hope that the respect, comity, geniality that we know Rob Portman has begins to influence the negotiations and create the opportunity to have a bipartisan effort on future trade votes,” Tauscher said. “Nothing we’ve seen so far has indicated a seismic shift away from tactics that achieved a deplorable vote for CAFTA.”
This onetime contender for GOP leadership, doesn’t regret departure
Former Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), now the United States trade representative, said earlier this month that he did not regret his decision to leave Congress despite the recent shakeup in House leadership that could have catapulted him into the post of majority leader.
“I think it was the right decision for me,” he told The Hill. “I think I’m in the right place. I don’t tend to have a lot of regrets in life. You don’t know what would have happened.”
Until the administration tapped him to be the country’s top trade official this spring, Portman occupied the position of chairman of the House Republican leadership. He was handpicked for the post by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who ultimately decided who would temporarily replace former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). DeLay was forced to step down last month after he was indicted by a Texas grand jury.
Portman, a close Hastert ally, would have been a serious contender for the No. 2 slot had he remained in Congress, House Republican sources said.
Portman was on the Hill for an unrelated meeting a day after DeLay stepped down. He ran into the Speaker, and the two had an impromptu meeting, but it is not known whether they discussed the leadership shakeup.
“The Speaker’s still in charge. He very much wants to be in charge. He wants to keep the train moving,” Portman said.
Asked if DeLay would ever return to the majority-leader role, Portman said, “That depends.
“He’s a scrapper. He’s a fighter. He’s very valuable to the team and very good at getting an idea translated into law using the congressional process. … He’ll continue to have a lot of fans on the Republican side.”