The Magazine

Bush's Men on the Hill

The president chooses his eyes and ears in Congress

Feb 12, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 21 • By MATTHEW REES
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WHEN GEORGE W. BUSH was running for president, he maintained an arms-length relationship with congressional Republicans. Today, he's aggressively courting them. During his first week in office, he met with scores of members, and late last week he attended a GOP retreat in Williams-burg, Virginia. Bush has also hired a claque of esteemed congressional staffers to work in his legislative affairs office, a move guaranteed to build goodwill with Republicans.


But even more important for Bush's relations with the GOP is who he will be turning to as formal and informal liaisons with Capitol Hill -- notably senator Bill Frist of Tennessee and representative Rob Portman of Ohio. While their roles are still evolving, it's clear they will be Bush's eyes and ears in Congress, alerting him and his aides to the mood on Capitol Hill and giving advice on routine matters like who's susceptible to lobbying on tough votes, when to press forward with particular legislation, and when to pull back. Portman's efforts will complement those of Roy Blunt, the House GOP's talented chief deputy whip and Bush's official liaison to the House.


While little known beyond Congress, Frist and Portman are natural choices. Like Bush, they came late to elective office, yet entered at a high level. Frist had never run for anything before knocking off a veteran incumbent senator, Jim Sasser, in 1994 (Bush's top political aide, Karl Rove, was among those who encouraged Frist to run). As for Portman, his political experience before his election to Congress in 1993 consisted of staff jobs in the Bush White House. Portman and Frist are also like Bush in that they bring a mild-mannered approach to politics; from a conservative foundation, they emphasize bipartisanship and place a premium on achievement. And all three hold Ivy League degrees: Bush went to Yale and Harvard Business School, Frist to Princeton and Harvard Medical School, and Portman to Dartmouth.


Both Frist and Portman command respect from their peers on the Hill and hold leadership positions in their respective caucuses. Frist recently ran unopposed for chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP's campaign arm, while Portman was tapped by speaker Denny Hastert last month to be chairman of the House leadership, a position that guarantees a White House ally will always be present when House leaders are crafting strategy.


Frist is best known for his background as a surgeon who's performed over 200 heart and lung transplants (he is the first doctor elected to the Senate since 1928). During his first term, he labored on a number of important but obscure health issues and often found himself overshadowed by Tennessee's other Republican senator, Fred Thompson.


That changed last summer, when Bush made him his Senate liaison following the death of senator Paul Coverdell. Frist was sufficiently unacquainted with Bush that just a few months earlier he'd stood in line at a Republican fund-raiser to have his picture taken with the candidate, but he quickly established himself as a Coverdell-like figure who could assume ownership of issues without alienating his famously turf-conscious colleagues. And during the Republican convention, he co-chaired the hearings of the platform committee at the request of Josh Bolten, the campaign's policy director and now a deputy chief of staff in the White House. The usually unruly proceedings came off without a hitch, with Frist adroitly navigating the contentious debate on education.


Frist stayed active for Bush in the general election campaign, setting up weekly conference calls for his Senate GOP colleagues to speak with top Bush aides and mediating between Congress and the Bush campaign over the details of the patients' bill of rights legislation. More important, because he was up for reelection against a weak opponent, he was able to synchronize his advertising with Bush's, giving the Texas governor a little-noticed boost that even the Gore campaign completely missed. His labors paid off, as Tennessee, Gore's ostensible home state, went for Bush.


Frist's work ethic is the stuff of Senate legend. Aides regularly receive e-mail missives at 2 or 3 A.M. Partly this reflects the idealism of one still new to politics. But Frist also keeps a peculiar schedule: One night a week he simply goes without sleep, a habit left over from his days as a heart surgeon. His sleep pattern may also explain how, despite his Senate workload, he finds time to write (he co-authored a book, published in 1999, that profiled 17 Tennessee senators), travel (he leads regular medical missions to Africa), and exercise (he runs a marathon about every six months).


This stamina will serve him well as he chairs the Senate Republican campaign committee -- he'll be ably assisted by Republican operative Mitch Bainwol -- and runs interference for Bush on issues like Medicare and health care reform, where there's already disagreement between Republicans and the White House. (Anne Phelps, a former Frist staffer now in the White House, will help iron out the differences.) One of his unlikely Senate allies may turn out to be Ted Kennedy. They've worked together on a number of health care issues, and in a statement given to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, Kennedy said, "I admire Senator Frist's ability to set aside partisan differences and work effectively across the aisle on key public health issues."


If Frist has anything to worry about, it's that his ties to the new administration are not of long standing. That won't be a problem for Portman, who has better connections to the Bush White House than any other member of Congress. He counts among his close friends senior Bush staffers Andrew Card, Josh Bolten, and Nick Calio -- all former colleagues from his time working in the White House for Bush's father (Portman is the only House member to have served in the first Bush administration). What's more, a number of Portman staffers now occupy top White House slots. John Bridgeland is a senior member of the domestic policy council, Joe Hagin is the director of administration, and Melissa Bennett is Card's scheduler.


Portman downplays his own relationship with Bush, saying, "I don't hold myself out as a close personal friend." Yet in November 1997, long before Bush had made public his presidential plans, he told Portman, during a ceremony dedicating the Bush library at Texas A&M, of his plans to seek the White House. And Bush clearly likes him. When Portman arrived late to a recent meeting between Bush and congressional leaders, Bush jokingly barked, "Portman, what are you doing here, serving coffee?" And in the ultimate compliment, Bush has given Portman an affectionate nickname: "Robby."


Portman got his start in electoral politics after leaving the first Bush White House for his native Cincinnati, where he practiced law. When the longtime local congressman, Bill Gradison, resigned from Congress in 1993 to run a health care trade association, Portman jumped into what became a fiercely contested Republican primary, which included a former congressman, Bob McEwen. But Portman prevailed, thanks to a radio ad in which Barbara Bush endorsed him, saying, "I always enjoy having Skyline Chili [a local favorite] with Rob Portman when I'm in Cincinnati." Portman returned the favor a few years later by sponsoring legislation to christen the CIA complex the George Bush Center for Intelligence, a change that became official in April 1999.


During last year's presidential campaign, home-state loyalties kept Portman neutral until his fellow Ohioan, John Kasich, withdrew from the race. Thereafter, he immediately endorsed Bush, and served as a surrogate for him in New Hampshire, where he'd gone to college. He also campaigned doggedly for Bush in the primary in Ohio, a key state that voted shortly after John McCain's upset victory in Michigan. Perhaps most significant of all, Portman took the role of Al Gore as Bush readied for the third presidential debate, and then spent a number of weekends in Wyoming playing Joe Lieberman to help prepare Dick Cheney for the vice presidential debate.


With Roy Blunt as Bush's formal liaison in the House, Portman's influence won't always be visible. But top White House officials say that given his history of working on a variety of tax and pension issues, his fingerprints will be all over any legislation in those areas. And though a conservative, he's popular with all the House factions. Representative Chris Shays, a leading GOP moderate, gushes over him, while representative Ben Cardin, a liberal from Baltimore, praises him as an "honest broker" who's more interested in achievement than partisanship. (Portman's tax staffer, Barbara Pate, is a Democrat who once worked for Democratic congressman J. J. Pickle.)


Given the GOP's razor-thin congressional majorities, if Frist and Portman can help deliver legislative victories for Bush on their specialty issues, health care and taxes, their relative anonymity will become a thing of the past. Regardless, both are seen by their colleagues and political observers as rising GOP stars. Portman is often mentioned as a future speaker, or perhaps a vice presidential nominee. Frist, who's not planning to run for reelection in 2006, is said to be positioning himself to run for president. Frist-Portman in 2008? You read it here first.




Matthew Rees is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.