The Republican senator who is leading negotiations for his party on a bipartisan infrastructure plan says Republicans have nothing to lose and much to gain in cutting a deal with the president.,


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WASHINGTON — Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio and a three-decade veteran of Washington, helped lead the bipartisan negotiations that produced an infrastructure deal that has been endorsed by President Biden. But that may have been the easy part.

Now, it will be up to Mr. Portman and his colleagues to write the bill, set to provide nearly $600 billion in new federal spending, and shepherd it through the narrowly divided and deeply polarized House and Senate to Mr. Biden’s desk.

Mr. Portman is uniquely positioned for the role he is playing. A seasoned operator in Washington, he served for more than 20 years in the House and has been in the Senate for a decade, with stints in between as President George W. Bush’s top trade official and then his budget chief. He is also retiring, in theory freeing him from some of the political strictures that bind many of his Republican colleagues.

Yet the task is still difficult. With five Republicans publicly on board with the compromise, at least five more would need to join all 50 Democrats for the measure to have the 60 votes necessary to advance in the Senate. And looming over the maneuvering is a promise by Democrats not to allow the measure to go forward unless they are also assured that a far more ambitious measure including trillions more in spending — to be muscled through over Republican opposition using a process known as budget reconciliation — will survive.

Mr. Portman spoke recently with The New York Times about his early, negative experience working with Mr. Biden this year, why he trusts the president now and why he thinks Republicans should support the bipartisan infrastructure deal even though Democrats plan to jam through a much bigger bill they oppose. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you reflect on your personal history with the president?

Well, I’ve known him for a while — I guess a couple decades at least — and I’ve always worked well with him. I worked with him when I was in the House and he was in the Senate on policy issues, including the Drug-Free Communities Act, which was one of my bills he helped on.

I’m not a close friend, by any means, but I have worked with him and I’ve seen where in the past, he has been willing to come together with Republicans and accomplish bipartisan results.

But with regard to my experience in this administration, it wasn’t good, because it was the Covid experience, where we had hoped to work together in a bipartisan basis to pass a Covid relief bill, after he was elected.

We went to the White House and presented a plan and said we wanted to work together to try to find common ground, and literally the next morning, Democrats made the announcement that they were going to pursue reconciliation and were not interested in working with us.

So then why do this if you had this apparent negative experience earlier in this administration?

First of all, I’m never going to give up trying to get bipartisan legislation passed. That’s our job, and I said that after the Covid-19 issue.

Second, it really wasn’t about President Biden. It was about his $2.65 trillion infrastructure package, most of which had nothing to do with core infrastructure.

The better way was to focus on core infrastructure, which reduced the size of the package by about two thirds, and therefore focus on the core infrastructure, and then come up with pay-fors that did not include the tax increases that would hurt the economy at a time when we were trying to come off the Covid recession and get the economy back on track.

It was about just doing the right thing, and knowing that if we put together a bipartisan group, we would have a better chance of approaching the White House and seeing if they were willing to work with us. And sure enough, they were.

You mentioned that there’s a lot of people that agree on what core infrastructure is, but are you confident that will translate to the votes you need for this deal?

Yes, I think it’s a compelling framework, which says that we should focus on core infrastructure. And both sides made compromises as to how much to spend. Republicans would’ve wanted to spend less, as an example, on passenger rail or transit. Democrats would’ve wanted to spend more on areas like green technology or electric car companies. But we were able to find that middle ground, and I think there’s an enormous amount of support for that, both in Congress and, more importantly, in the country.

People want to see our infrastructure be improved. They’re tired of waiting in traffic during their rush hour commute. They’re tired of the bridges, like some in Ohio, that are well beyond their usefulness and causing a lot of inefficiency in the economy, because of the bottlenecks that they represent. People are tired of worrying about lead pipes.

So there’s a strong interest in coming up with a way to provide funding for these long-term assets like bridges and roads and water systems, and doing it in a smart way. And I think that’s why this is likely to — at the end of the day — prevail, despite some of the ups and downs. It’s very popular because it’s something people know is needed.

What about Republicans like Senator Lindsey Graham, who supports the deal but said he had issues with the idea that this would be linked with the reconciliation bill. Are you confident you can get people like him on board with this, when it comes time for a vote?

You’ll have to speak to him about that, but he’s been great. He would agree with what I said earlier about the importance of supporting these long-term investments.

He was upset, understandably, when President Biden announced only two hours after saying he strongly supported our project that he would only sign it if it included something that Republicans all oppose. But as far as I’m concerned, that’s in the past.

You know, President Biden then came out 48 hours later and issued a statement saying that in fact he strongly supports the agreement, and he meant it when he said it, and that he’s going to sign it, regardless of what else happens. So I think that concern that Lindsey had has now been resolved, and I was very pleased that the president was willing to do that.

President Biden and Democrats have made no secret they plan to go ahead on a parallel track with this other package under reconciliation. Why negotiate a bipartisan deal when you know Democrats are going to pursue this other avenue and in theory, they could have put all the infrastructure things that Republicans support into a bigger package that you oppose?

I think everything you said is a reason to do the bipartisan package. Number one, it is a better approach to infrastructure than would be in a larger reconciliation bill.

If you take roughly the same number of years, roughly the same types of proposals he wanted, he would want to spend about twice as much. So one, it is obviously better for Republicans and for the country, in my view, for us to have a proposal that focuses on core infrastructure that is separate from whatever would happen in reconciliation.

Second, Democrats were going to move ahead with reconciliation one way or the other. The question was whether infrastructure would be part of it or not. I’ve never thought that they weren’t going to move forward with reconciliation because we were doing the infrastructure bill. Of course, they will try. But it doesn’t mean that they’ll be successful in doing everything that they want to do, because there are obviously a lot of Democrats who don’t want to go as far as, say, Senator Sanders or Speaker Pelosi or Majority Leader Schumer.

We’ll see what happens, but our package is independent of that, and that point has been now made clearly by the president that he will be looking to sign both bills.

It seemed that trying a good-faith bipartisan negotiation was almost a condition for some of these moderate Democrats to move forward with a broader reconciliation package. Why give the president that pathway, and the ability to say he is fulfilling a campaign promise to cut bipartisan deals? There are certainly some Republicans who would not make that choice.

I don’t agree at all with your premise. I just disagree. Democrats are going to move forward with reconciliation, and try to do it no matter what — we all know that. The question is whether what I would think is fair to say is the most popular aspect of it among the American people, which would be infrastructure, whether that is going to be pulled out and dealt with separately in a bipartisan manner.

One legitimate argument, of course, would be that by taking that sweetener out of the reconciliation package, it’s less likely that reconciliation will pass at the level that Democrats are talking about.

But I don’t see that there’s any reason that Republicans would be opposed to dealing with infrastructure separately. That makes all the sense in the world, because we, for the most part, we support infrastructure. President Trump had a $2 trillion infrastructure package, but so did every president in recent history, including Republicans.

It’s been decades since we’ve actually acted on those proposals. It’s time to do it. If anything, it takes something out of reconciliation that would otherwise be attractive to more moderate Democrats.

I just think it’s the right thing to do. And we want to move forward with it.