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Sen. Portman Warns Biden Against Going It Alone On COVID-19 Relief

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, seen here in an October press conference, has announced he won't run for reelection in 2022, citing hyper-partisanship in Congress.
Graeme Jennings
Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, seen here in an October press conference, has announced he won't run for reelection in 2022, citing hyper-partisanship in Congress.

Updated 5 p.m. ET

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, a Republican who announced he won't seek reelection in 2022, warned the Biden administration and congressional Democrats not to move forward on a large new round of coronavirus relief legislation without GOP support, saying such a move "poisons the well."

Portman, who is part of a bipartisan Senate group in talks with the administration, told NPR's Susan Davis on Thursday he believes acting without Republican input or support of the bill "would set the tone for the administration that would be really problematic for the country and frankly, bad for the Biden administration."

President Biden has introduced a $1.9 trillion package that would send billions to state and local governments, provide additional funding for distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and boost the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Democrats hold the slimmest possible majority in the Senate, which means to skip a bipartisan deal, they would need either to kill the legislative filibuster, a move that would blow up the rules of the Senate, or use a process called reconciliation, which would allow them to get around the 60-vote threshold.

"It's just wrong," Portman said. "I think it's bad for the administration, and I've made that point repeatedly to the White House in the last several days, including last night. We'll see what they do. But I think it's much better to work with us."

Biden administration officials have said they prefer to work across party lines on coronavirus relief but won't take any legislative route off the table.

Future of the Republican Party

Portman predicts former President Donald Trump won't run for the White House again in 2024, saying, "I just don't see it. But maybe I'm wrong."

"My hope is that we'll see people step up who have the ability to bring this coalition together and to have a positive message that focuses on the policy and these ideals and does so in a respectful way," he said. "I think people are sometimes attracted to the divisiveness and the controversy and the coarseness of our political language these days. But that's not what's good for the country."

Portman handily won reelection in 2016, and his surprising retirement announcement on Monday launched speculation of who will run to replace him in what will likely be a competitive race.

He said he's not sure if conservative Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a Trump ally, would run for his seat.

"He's in the House now and has a significant role there," Portman said. "I just think it's up to the Ohio voters to decide who's going to succeed me." His prediction was correct: A spokesperson for Jordan's campaign confirmed to NPR hours after Portman's interview that the lawmaker will not run to fill Portman's seat.

Concerning the No. 3 House Republican, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, Portman is more effusive. Cheney has come under fire from many in her party after she supported impeaching Trump over inciting the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Portman this week joined most of his GOP caucus in a vote indicating that a Senate impeachment trial of a former president is unconstitutional.

Calling her a "friend," Portman said that if it were up to him, he would vote to keep Cheney in leadership.

"She's a very consistent Republican, at least in the tradition of our party," he said. "I think she does a good job, not just for the House but as the spokesperson for the Republican Party nationally."

The difficulty of finding middle ground

Portman cited "partisan gridlock" in his announcementMonday explaining why he wouldn't run for reelection in 2022.

"I just think people are being pushed further and further to the right or to the left, and it's harder to find people willing to do the hard work to find that middle ground," he told Davis. "I think it is not rewarded as much."

In terms of the role of more mainstream Republicans such as himself, Portman pointed to a quote from a GOP strategist that was brought to his attention — "If you want to get on, you know, MSNBC or Fox and throw red meat, you know, it's a great time to be in office. So if you want to try to get things done, it's a hard time," Portman paraphrased. "He used more colorful language than that."

He added: "The point is, I think he's probably right. It's just a different environment, even in the last 10 years since I've been in the United States Senate and certainly in the last 30 since I first got working in the first Bush administration."

Portman doesn't lay the blame for partisanship solely at Trump's feet.

"He has exacerbated the problem in the sense that the tweets, the incivility, the coarseness of language and so on are part of it," he said. "But let's face it, it's been going on for a while."

Capitol attack

As the top Republican on the panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack, Portman said he thinks the probe will review Trump's role and that of any members of Congress in inciting the riot, saying there are "deeper questions" about why people were "incentivized to do this illegal act."

He also said he's open to creating a bipartisan Sept. 11-style commission to study the attack.

"Everyone has pretty short memories these days, and I don't want this to be forgotten," he said. "We need to remember what happened, the severity of it, and understand how to avoid it from happening again."

On Trump's impeachment trial

Portman is undecided on how he will vote but expressed concerns over the precedent of holding a trial for someone who is no longer in office.

"I've got a duty as a juror and I think senators should listen to the arguments on both sides before they make their decision. That's what I intend to do," he said, noting he wants to hear arguments on the question of the trial's constitutionality.

But he added: "Right up to the end, of course, a president needs to be accountable."

The second question he'll be considering, he said, is whether convicting Trump would create more polarization in the country.

"Bringing the country together is important right now. We need to heal. And, you know, the question is, how do we do that best, and do we further the divisions and the polarization and create even more problems by one approach or another?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.