Tepid Reviews for Nussle Pick

Posted June 19, 2007 at 6:48pm

With bipartisan budget talks dead in the water and nasty veto fights over spending bills looming, President Bush on Tuesday named combative former House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) to replace former Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) as head of the Office of Management and Budget.

The naming of Nussle could put an even bigger chill on Congress-ional-White House relations given that Portman has a sunny disposition and had long cultivated warm relations on both sides of the aisle while Nussle has more of a reputation as a brusque partisan.

Portman himself said Tuesday he wanted to head back to his native Ohio to spend more time with his family. The remaining months in office as Bush’s budget director did not figure to be particularly enjoyable, with Portman’s hopes of crafting a grand bipartisan budget deal or entitlement reform package going nowhere and a showdown looming with Democrats on domestic spending.

Nussle presided over Bush’s first six budgets as Budget chairman, which set the stage for the 2001 and 2003 tax cut packages.

Nussle retired from Congress last year after eight terms in a failed gubernatorial bid in Iowa, and he subsequently set up a consulting firm with offices in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Northern Virginia.

Democrats generally indicated that Portman’s departure and Nussle’s nomination were inauspicious at best.

Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said he regretted that Portman was leaving. After putting out a terse statement that did not even mention Nussle, Conrad chose his words carefully when speaking to reporters about Nussle’s nomination.

“You know he has a reputation of being more partisan, and if progress is going to be made it’s going to take all sides to endeavor to work together,” he said.

Another Democratic Senator, who asked not to be quoted by name, said the announcement about the switch from Portman to Nussle was made at the Democrats’ regular Tuesday policy lunch and that “there was an audible reaction.”

Calling Nussle a “bare-knuckled brawler,” the Senator said, “I don’t think he’s got very high standing with anybody in the Congress who’s worked with him.”

And Conrad said Nussle’s eventual Senate confirmation hearing might be rocky.

“There are going to be issues at his confirmation,” Conrad said as he came off the floor following an unrelated Senate vote. He added, “I’ve just had four or five Members in the last hour talk to me about real concerns.”

But Conrad said he did not know whether Nussle’s partisan reputation alone would tank the nomination, and he indicated that Nussle should not necessarily expect the traditional deference usually given to nominees who are former Members. “I think it’s always going to help to come from the Hill. But look, everybody carries certain baggage and he carries certain baggage, because he is seen as very much a partisan. … I see him as a partisan,” Conrad said.

Still, some Senate Democratic aides said it would be difficult to find a reason to block Nussle’s nomination on the merits, considering opponents cannot claim he is not qualified for the job.

“He’s not going to win nominee of the year,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide. “But he’ll be confirmed.”

Senate Budget ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) also said he sees no reason why Nussle’s confirmation should be a problem.

“He was always a fair shooter. I mean, sure, he had opinions, but you’d expect that,” Gregg said.

When asked about Nussle’s reputation for having sharper elbows than Portman, Gregg said the difficulty of working with Nussle was “no more so than myself.”

“Jim understands you’ve got to work across the aisle, and he understands how to do that. I think he will be a very constructive player and will engage in ways that doesn’t create hard feelings, but that makes one’s point,” he said.

“Portman was a pleasure to work with,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “I hope [Nussle is] as easy to work with as Portman.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) put out a press release effusive in its praise of Portman without mentioning Nussle. In a press conference, he could only find one thing positive to say. “Mr. Nussle is a Dane,” he said, noting that he himself is of Danish heritage. He later added: “I don’t know Mr. Nussle very well, and I’ve said what I’m going to say.”

Then he went on anyway, stating that from 2001 to 2006, Congress “pursued the most fiscally irresponsible policies” he’d ever seen.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) didn’t have any kind words for the OMB pick, either.

“The legacy of President Bush and former House Budget Committee Chairman Nussle is one of $3 trillion in new debt and six years of deficit spending,” Emanuel said in a statement. “It’s time the President and Mr. Nussle join Democrats in balancing our budget while reflecting our values.”

The friendliest Democratic comments about Nussle came from House Budget Chairman John Spratt (S.C.), who served as ranking member under Nussle.

“Our relationship was one of comity and cooperation,” Spratt said in a statement. “Even though Jim and I disagreed on policies, the disagreements never were personal. Indeed, Jim was a fair and honorable chairman.”

Republicans were kinder.

Former New York Mayor and presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, whom Nussle had been helping navigate the Iowa caucuses, praised Nussle’s appointment.

“Jim and I have long shared a commitment to fiscal discipline and I have every confidence he will continue to be an effective steward of taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars in his new position,” Giuliani said.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) praised Nussle as a fellow member of the Gang of Seven “where we fought to make the House more transparent and accountable. I know he’ll work with House Republicans closely — just as Rob did — to reform the way Washington spends taxpayer dollars, and to fight against wasteful and excessive spending.”

Portman served as a Member from Ohio from 1993 to 2005 before he was chosen by Bush to serve as U.S. Trade Representative.

His office said Portman was looking forward to spending more time with his family, including three teenagers, after 14 years of commuting from Cincinnati to Washington, D.C. Portman told The Cincinnati Enquirer that he might run for governor in 2010 or Senate in 2012, when Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown would face re-election. Brown is a leading skeptic of recent free-trade deals, while Portman helped negotiate them.

Portman also occasionally has been mentioned in presidential politics as a potential future candidate or vice presidential pick.

Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.