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Sens. Brown, Portman at odds on much, except for Ohio

TNS Regional News • Mar 24, 2014 at 2:07 PM

You’d be hard-pressed to find a gang in Washington, D.C., that could accommodate both Sens. Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman.

Ideologically and stylistically opposite, Brown and Portman are the yin and yang of politics. Brown is gravelly voiced and excitable, mentioning the middle class almost reflexively. Portman is more soft-spoken, careful almost to a fault, a social and economic conservative who is happy to talk at length about the nation’s long-term spending problems.

Yet both men ultimately were part of the “gang” — Washington-speak for a bipartisan group of senators who agree — that signed onto a Senate agreement on federal unemployment insurance earlier this month, ending a months-long standoff on how to extend long-term unemployment benefits for some 2 million Americans.

Their motives for coming together on this rare occasion were markedly different: Brown wanted to extend the benefits to the 52,000 Ohioans who use them. Portman wanted that, too, but also wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to reform a system that he believes is broken.

That both men signed onto the deal was somewhat of a surprise to many who watch the duo, whose votes typically cancel out each other’s in the Senate.

They canceled each other’s votes on gun control (Brown voted for the most recent measure, Portman against it) and immigration (Brown supported the package, Portman did not).

But the two men have nonetheless forged a relationship with a common ground of what is important to their state.

“Sherrod and I are going to disagree on big issues like taxes and spending and Obamacare and things like that,” Portman said. But, he said, “Sherrod and I have a good relationship.”

The men are polar opposites on general issues of trade policy — Brown is reluctant to enter most new trade agreements because of concerns of how they’re structured while Portman generally embraces them, arguing that exports are vital to U.S. businesses. But they’re like-minded on enforcing current trade agreements, particularly when they have an effect on Ohio companies.

“Though Rob and I sometimes vote differently, we set aside our differences when it comes to working for Ohio,” Brown said. “We’ve worked together on issues ranging from enforcing trade law, promoting pediatric research, to extending unemployment insurance.”

Both, too, are vocal advocates of the long-troubled American Centrifuge Project in Piketon, fighting for federal dollars for the project and sending a letter to Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz in December urging him to identify long-term options to preserve the U.S. supply of domestic enriched uranium.

They’ve advocated for restoring the pensions of Delphi employees who saw benefits cut — sometimes dramatically — in the aftermath of the 2009 auto bailout.

And the two men have teamed up in an effort to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. Earlier this month, they sent a letter to Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, urging her to act quickly to prevent the invasive species from spreading.

Former Rep. David Hobson, R-Springfield, said the two are “probably not buddies, but there’s a difference between having a good relationship and working together where they can.”

He said the two inhabit different roles: Portman, because of his status in the minority of the Senate, has little choice but to partner with Democrats if he wants to pass legislation. Brown, he said, is acquiring some seniority and is using it to do “some good things on some issues that have historically not been really natural to him.”

Relationships between two senators representing one state are often fraught with tension, as both senators and their staffs jockey for attention, regardless of party affiliation. The relationship between the two Ohio senators’ offices isn’t without squabbling, and even the details of who signed onto the unemployment deal first or the level of involvement is a matter of some disagreement.

But it could be worse.

During a brief period when Sens. John Glenn, D-Ohio, and Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, represented the state, the rivalry between the two offices was notorious. “The staffs wouldn’t talk to each other,” said former Rep. Dennis Eckart, D-Cleveland, a close Brown ally.

That changed with Sens. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and George V. Voinovich, R-Ohio, who shared office space in the state. “The fact is, you’ve gotta be able to talk to each other,” Voinovich said.

Part of the reason that Portman and Brown have been able to forge a productive partnership, Eckart said, is because they’ve found specialties that don’t overlap.

Brown, for example, is active on both banking issues and agricultural issues. Portman, meanwhile, has spoken out on spending issues.

Both are on the powerful Senate Finance Committee, but, Eckart said, “They don’t seem to be competing substantively policy-wise.”


By Jessica Wehrman - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)

©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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