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Portman Changes Tone, at Least, in Budget Debate

As Republicans go, Democrats really like Rob Portman. It’s just too bad for the Office of Management and Budget director that he works for the Bush administration.

“Certainly, Rob Portman is very well regarded by many Democrats,” said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.). “But the Bush administration, separate from Rob Portman, has a very low level of credibility with the Democratic Caucus. … They end up formulating policies and budgets that are very different from what Rob Portman presents.”[IMGCAP(1)]

Similarly, Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) praised Portman as “a thoughtful, bright person who is concerned about the long-term unsustainability of our fiscal situation.”

So does that mean that Conrad is approaching with an open mind the $2.9 trillion fiscal 2008 budget the White House delivered on Monday?

“The problem is not with the staff. The problem is at the top,” Conrad said. “Staff says everything is on the table, and the vice president and president are undermining the staff. … If their superiors keep contradicting their representations, nothing’s going to happen.”

That’s the overwhelming sentiment Portman, a former Ohio Congressman, faces over the next few weeks as he teams up with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to sell President Bush’s budget blueprint to a skeptical Democratic majority on Capitol Hill.

“There will be no Democratic support for it,” said Davis, who pointed to revelations that the president’s 21,500 troop “surge” in Iraq really would amount to 48,000 new soldiers for the war as just the most recent example of why Democrats view the White House with suspicion.

But Democrats’ misgivings about the Bush administration may not be completely insurmountable, given Portman’s and Paulson’s stellar reputations among Members.

While one House Democratic Member noted that, with Portman, “there’s distrust of what he’d like to do and what he can do,” the Member said that if the president is serious about repairing bipartisan relations after six years of raw partisan warfare, “he has the right ambassadors” to Congress.

House Budget ranking member Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) agreed, saying, “The president couldn’t have a better team to sell his budget.”

Portman and Paulson got high marks from both New Democrats and Blue Dog Democrats who met with the duo over the past month and were encouraged by the pair’s message of bipartisanship.

“It wasn’t budget specific,” said Rep. Melissa Bean (Ill.), a member of both centrist-to-conservative Democratic groups. “It was about reaching common ground.”

Bean added that she believes the president “is very sincere about wanting to rein in spending and move to a balanced budget.”

Davis, who also attended a Portman-Paulson briefing, declared the president’s budget “dead on arrival” in one breath, but in the next breath, he held out the possibility of working with Portman on “elements that will have room for compromise.”

Portman said Friday that his goal in meeting with both Democrats and Republicans was to try to head off the partisan posturing that traditionally surrounds budget debates and to get Congress to concentrate on the substance of the policy differences.

Portman said he approached it that way “so we won’t be poisoning the well for discussion about how to come together on both the short-term budget but also the long-term fiscal realities.”

And in his budget press conference Monday, Portman outlined several ways in which the White House and the OMB tried to address the concerns of Congress in their budget.

For example, he said, “We heard loud and clear from Congress that they were seeking more detail” on the Iraq War costs, and so, for the first time since the war began in 2003, the White House included nearly $300 billion in war funding projections through 2009.

In fact, Conrad interrupted his litany of complaints about the president’s budget Monday to praise the OMB’s inclusion of Iraq War costs.

“They are at least moving toward transparency,” he said, crediting Portman for the change.

Pressed for more ways in which the White House sought to make peace offerings to Congress, Portman said the administration gave up on a $1 billion-a-year transportation security user fee and included a 1 percent increase in non-security discretionary funding, rather than the traditional freeze proposed by the president.

“We have tried to be responsive to appropriators who have said this is not a realistic budget,” Portman said.

Plus, Portman tacitly acknowledged, perhaps unwittingly, that the Bush administration often has approached Congress with take-it-or-leave-it proposals.

“By saying, ‘There are no preconditions, and we should all come to the table and talk,’ that was a change in position,” Portman said. But when asked whether Bush actually set a precondition by saying that he would not accept any tax increases as part of balancing the budget, Portman said that was merely Bush’s starting position — as unwavering as it may be.

“What the president and the vice president are saying, they are just reiterating the position we have had in terms of policy for some time,” Portman explained on Friday. “What’s new is the commitment of the administration to discuss all ideas.”

But if the initial reviews of the president’s budget hold, Portman — and Bush — are going to have to entertain a lot more Democratic ideas than they’re used to, given that even the economic assumptions on which the White House based its budget have come under attack.

“You need to look at the underlying assumptions very carefully before you buy into the end result” of a balanced budget by 2012, said House Budget Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.). “It’s a very improbable assumption to say the least.”

And while Portman emphasized Friday the need to “establish a procedure by which we can work through our differences,” his message hasn’t been completely embraced yet.

“The president’s budget is filled with debt and deception,” Conrad declared on Monday. “It is disconnected from reality.”

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