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Brown, Portman agree on extending jobless benefits

Issue marks rare occasion when Ohio’s senators are on same side.

Sens. Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman are about as ideologically and stylistically opposite as politicians can be, yet both were part of the bipartisan group of senators that forged a possible Senate agreement on federal unemployment insurance.

It was an occasion — rare in recent years — when the senators from opposing parties signed onto an agreement on a big policy issue. But a close look at their voting records shows some common ground, particularly when Ohio jobs are at stake.

Brown, a Democrat, and Portman, a Republican, are the yin and yang of politics, representing opposite ends of the spectrum in a swing state that bleeds purple, at least in presidential elections.

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.

The agreement on federal unemployment insurance, which is expected to go before the Senate this week, would have to slide past reluctant Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives before reaching President Barack Obama’s desk. Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., has already panned its chances. But even getting this far was an accomplishment of sorts: It ended a months-long standoff on how to extend long-term unemployment benefits for some 2 million Americans.

The two senators’ motives for reaching a compromise were markedly different: Brown wanted, plain and simple, to extend the benefits to the 52,000 Ohioans. Portman wanted that too, but he 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. They say that the two reliably cancel out one another’s vote in the U.S. Senate.

But they also say that the two men, despite a vast ideological divide, have cemented a relationship that’s surprisingly productive. The common ground, typically, is whether the issue 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,” said Portman. But, he added, “Sherrod and I have a good relationship.”

Some common ground

On major issues, the two disagree more than they agree. They cancelled each other’s votes on gun control (Brown voted for the most recent measure, Portman voted against it) and immigration (Brown supported the package, Portman did not).

On budget issues, too, they are hardly in sync: Portman has focused his energy on reforming entitlements in order to cut spending; Brown has signed onto legislation that would expand Social Security.

On general issues of U.S. trade policy, they are polar opposites as well. Brown is reluctant to enter most new trade agreements because of his concerns over how they are structured and Portman generally embraces them, arguing exports are vital to U.S. businesses. But even on trade, the two have found some shared turf: they are like-minded on enforcing current trade agreements, particularly when they have an effect on Ohio companies.

Both, too, are vocal advocates of the long-troubled American Centrifuge Project in Piketon, Ohio, fighting for federal dollars for the project and sending a letter to U.S. 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 also 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 Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy urging her to act quickly to prevent the invasive species from spreading.

“They certainly have points of view, but they are both in complete agreement that jobs in Ohio are our highest priority,” said Michael Gessel, a lobbyist for the Dayton Development Coalition.

‘Probably not buddies’

Former Rep. David Hobson, R-Springfield, said the two are “probably not buddies.” But even ideological opposites can find agreement on certain issues, he said.

Hobson 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, said Hobson, 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 staff jockey for attention and credit, regardless of party affiliation. The relationship between the staffs of Brown and Portman isn’t without squabbling or occasional backbiting, and even the details of who signed onto the unemployment deal first or their level of involvement is a matter of some disagreement.

But it could be worse.

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

That changed with Republican Sens. Mike DeWine and George Voinovich, who often worked together. “The fact is, you’ve gotta be able to talk to each other,” said Voinovich.

Eckart said that spirit of collaboration has continued for the most part with Brown and Portman, who were both elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1993 and served together there for more than a decade.

“The staffs talk regularly,” said Eckart. “They look for opportunities to do things together.”

One reason for the mostly productive relationship, said Eckart, is they don’t butt heads on the same issues very often. Brown is most active on banking and agricultural issues, while Portman is a hawk on spending. Both are on the powerful Senate Finance Committee, but, Eckart said, “they don’t seem to be competing substantively policy wise.”

“They seem to be working out of their own spaces,” he said.

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