With Senate approval of the most sweeping changes in the federal tax code since 1986, Sen. Rob Portman has moved one step closer to a goal he has talked about relentlessly since he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010.
And if overhauling the tax code sparks an economic boom, Portman will emerge as one of the Republicans who will receive credit nationwide for making the tax bill a reality.
But Portman — and Republicans in general — will face a backlash if the bill does not jolt the economy while adding, as some analysts and economists predict, as much as $1 trillion to the nation’s publicly held debt over the next decade.
“I think there will be significant economic growth that will come from this,” Portman said in an interview last week. “The bill isn’t perfect, but I worked to improve it.”
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Not a single Senate Democrat supported the bill, and in speech after speech before Saturday’s early morning vote they painted the proposal as a giant gift to wealthy Americans.
“He takes a hit on this along with the rest of the Republicans in Congress and the president,” said David Leland, former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “They own this tax cut for the extremely wealthy — lock, stock and barrel.”
A conference committee will have to iron out differences in the House and Senate bills before a reconciled bill can move to the president’s desk for his signature.
Portman’s visible and aggressive role has been a departure from his customary risk-averse style. He often focuses on issues that have broad appeal. During his re-election campaign last year, Portman emphasized stepping up efforts to combat opioids and other addictive drugs.
“Doing any big public policy exposes you to some risk,” said Jeff Sadosky, a former Portman adviser now media consultant in Washington. But, Sadosky said, “Voters send leaders to Washington to work to make things better, not just to sit on their hands because of the potential of risk.”
“Reforming an outdated tax code was at the core of a Portman jobs plan that goes back now eight years when he began running for the Senate,” Sadosky added. “From that moment on, he has been an outspoken leader on the issue. It shouldn’t be a surprise he plays a leadership role in the Senate Republican caucus on this issue.”
Portman, who was director of the White House Office of Management and Budget under former President George W. Bush, always was expected to play a major role in the tax bill.
Shortly after last year’s presidential election, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, tapped Portman to head a small group of GOP senators to develop a tax bill.
Starting in December of last year, they not only met among each other and House Republicans such as Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, but dealt with key members of the Trump administration, including Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Gary Cohn, a Cleveland native who is now director of the White House National Economic Council.
At one point, according to sources, Portman suggested the Senate bill have seven individual tax brackets as opposed to the four in the House bill. Those sources claim the added brackets would lead to a larger tax reduction for many middle-class Americans.
But while Senate Republicans adopted those changes, budget skeptics remain unconvinced. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office last week concluded the Senate bill during the next decade would add $1.4 trillion to the publicly held debt, which is money the government owes to investors who buy treasury bonds or notes.
In addition, the CBO this summer projected the nation’s gross domestic product will expand at an average rate of just 1.9 percent during the next decade, while most independent economic models suggest the tax cuts will not spark enough growth to control deficits.
Portman dismisses such talk, predicting “we will do better than 1.9 percent, which means we will have even more revenue coming in.”
“I’m not saying every tax cut pays for itself,” Portman said, adding that lawmakers will have to restrain spending. But, he said, “It’s very hard to make the tough decisions you have to make on the debt without a growing economy.”
Although Portman frequently touts his efforts at bipartisanship, the tax bill has been a completely partisan effort.
Convinced they could pass a bill without Democratic votes, Senate Republicans adopted a parliamentary maneuver to prevent a Democratic filibuster and pass the bill with 51 votes.
That, too, is a bit of a departure for Portman, or at least the image he tries to project. Last month, his staff rushed out a press release after Portman received a bipartisanship award from the Leon Panetta Institute for Public Policy, with Portman saying he would “continue to work in a bipartisan manner to deliver results.”
But on the tax bill, there was no such outreach.
“There hasn’t been a facade or a hollow attempt at bipartisanship,” said Leland, a Democratic state representative from Columbus. “They completely rammed everything, which is why they have nothing to show for the past year.”