The agenda for Republicans like Sen. Rob Portman remains the same: A major overhaul of the federal tax code, sweeping revisions to the nation’s health-care laws and relaxing regulations on financial institutions and companies.
But staying on track is becoming increasingly difficult, Republicans admit, with the continuing fallout over the firing of FBI Director James Comey and accusations that President Donald Trump shared intelligence secrets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
“Every ounce of political capital Republicans had prior to this will be spent weaving their way through a maze of trip wires and land mines left in the wake of Trump’s mishandling of this investigation,” said one Republican, who asked not to be named.
Portman, R-Ohio, says he won’t let the excess noise get in the way of what he wants to get done. “I think it’s our job not to get distracted,” he said. “My team’s not focused on the distractions. We’re focused on putting our heads down and getting work done.”
Portman has argued for years the tax code needs a major overhaul for the first time since 1986. His goal is to reduce the number of individual income tax brackets, reduce taxes on corporations and individuals, and scrub the bloated tax code of scores of deductions, moves he argues will expand the economy and raise wages.
“In some areas, there are going to be challenges, no matter what,” he acknowledged. “Tax reform and health-care reform are tough issues.”
Steve Elmendorf, a onetime adviser to former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri and now a Democratic lobbyist, said distractions aren’t the only problem at the the White House. He says the administration doesn’t possess the knowledge or focus needed to revise the tax code.
“To me, this White House is sort of the opposite of Rob Portman,” said Elmendorf, referring to the Ohio Republican’s reputation as a tax wonk. “Whether you agree with (Portman) or not on the substance, he knows a lot about how the process works.”
Rob Lehman, a former chief of staff to Portman, said “no matter who is in the White House, Rob’s going to be in the middle of these big issues. In some ways his comments of keeping his head down and trying to find a pathway is the way he’s always done it. But it’s clearly more challenging when you have distractions at the White House.”
Privately, some GOP officials are convinced that the swirling controversies will make it impossible for Republicans to navigate their way to overhauling the tax code. Though it has since recovered, the stock market had its biggest sell off of the year just after the Comey firing, and some Republicans are now openly challenging the president, even calling his budget he released last week dead on arrival.
Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Troy, reacted positively to the budget proposal, saying it “bends the out of control spending curve in the right direction.” But Davidson expressed frustration over the diversions that have occurred in the first few months of the Trump presidency.
“We’re not talking about the solutions we have for the country,” he said. “We’re spending more time talking about the executive branch.”
Portman has attempted a difficult balancing act with Trump. He was slow, for example, to call for a special counsel to investigate any links last year between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials who wanted to defeat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
But he also has attempted to distance himself from Trump. He says he wrote in the name of Vice President Mike Pence instead of Trump on his November ballot, and has made clear he opposes any White House efforts to ease economic sanctions imposed on Russia after it annexed Crimea in 2014.
When the House – with strong support from Trump — earlier this month approved a major revision to the 2010 health law known as Obamacare, Portman rushed out a statement declaring that while he believes Obamacare is “unsustainable,” he doesn’t “support the House bill as currently constructed” because it would curb the expansion of Medicaid coverage to hundreds of thousands of low income people in Ohio.
“I’m not trying to distance myself from anybody,” Portman said in explaining his statements. “I’m trying to do what’s best for Ohio.”