CINCINNATI – For a moment this past week, it was like the old days in Washington. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, smiled as he announced a bipartisan deal. He turned to and put his hand on Republican Sen. Rob Portman’s shoulder, a gesture meant to signal a closeness.
But Portman, a three-decade Washington veteran who plans to retire next year, stayed tight-lipped.
“I wasn’t smiling because look, I’m all for bipartisanship, but I’m also not naive,” Portman told The Associated Press Friday, during a break in a daylong series of calls about the infrastructure deal announced Thursday. “I also knew that the package ... had a long way to go.”
The Ohio senator said he wasn't surprised when the hard-won breakthrough started to sink. Republicans complained Biden had blindsided them by tying passage of the agreement to a larger companion package being negotiated by Democrats.
Portman has reason for the pessimism. He has watched in his low-key manner as his party took a hard right turn under President Donald Trump and Washington drifted away from bipartisan governing. He announced in January he would not seek a third term, saying it had become too hard to get things done.
But Portman has been trying. He worked through the night repeatedly as the lead Republican negotiator in a bipartisan group on the effort to fix the nation's bridges, roads, and ports, sometimes hosting sessions in a hideaway in the Senate basement. For him and a handful of other lawmakers, the talks have become something of a test of whether Washington can still work.
“If we can’t find it on infrastructure, I don’t know where else we can find it," Portman said. "I hate to say that and I don't mean to be negative, but this should be relatively easy.”
In the wide-ranging interview, Portman insisted he's not giving up on passing infrastructure legislation and he reflected on why he voted for Trump.
—on the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection: “It was a bad night for not just the Capitol and for the people trying to count the votes properly, but for democracy. The rest of the world looked at that and said 'Wow! Is America as strong as it used to be that they would allow this sort of thing?' We've got to get our act together and make sure that it never happens again." Portman supported the creation of an independent commission to investigate the riot, but other Republican senators blocked the move.
—on Trump: “I voted for Donald Trump because I thought he had the right policies. ... I still believe that the policies, the overwhelming majority of them, were good for the country."
He said Trump restored military strength and led “an unbelievable” economic success.
“So there was a lot of good stuff going on.”
As he has for years, Portman repeatedly steered clear of any direct criticism of Trump, who on Saturday night in Ohio was holding his first campaign-style event since leaving the White House in January. Trump continues to obsess over his ongoing efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, which he insists he won, even though top election officials, his own attorney general and numerous judges have said there is no evidence of the mass voter fraud he alleges.
Portman made clear that he said "that once the election is over, you know, we've got to move on. And I gave the president all the room necessary to do the recounts, to bring the court cases, to see what the resolution was, but once the states certified, once that whole process was done, then it's time for us to acknowledge that you know, we were not successful as Republicans. We came close, but we weren't successful, not at the presidential level.
—on Republican Rep. Anthony Gonzalez from the Cleveland area, under attack from Trump and other Republicans for voting to impeach Trump for his role in the Capitol riot. Portman voted to acquit Trump in the Senate trial.
Portman said the congressman is "a Republican who's been effective in getting things passed. I disagree with him on his impeachment vote, but that's not a reason for me to to want him to be out of the Republican Party.”
—on Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, facing primary opposition in 2022: “That's the way it is these days. I think Mike DeWine has done a good job in dealing with a really difficult situation. I don't agree with every decision he made in regard to COVID; this COVID issue is really hard to deal with.”
Portman said he is watching closely the primary race to succeed him, but doesn't know whether he will make an endorsement from “a crowded field” that includes former state Treasurer Josh Mandel and former state GOP chair Jane Timken, among others, and is expected to soon be joined by “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance.
Portman, who served under Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, said he looks forward to returning to Ohio full time to be with his wife, Jane, and his family and to work in the private sector. Could he see himself running for office again or joining a future administration?
“I guess I wouldn’t rule it out if there was a way I could serve my country and do so in a productive way,” he said. “I like to get stuff done.”
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