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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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.