Portman Optimistic Trade Bill Can Pass U.S. Congress Next Year

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(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.

WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio predicts Congress will pass legislation next year strengthening President Barack Obama's hand in winning approval of trade deals.

Prospects for so-called fast-track authority were undetermined after Obama said he will nominate Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat who is chairman of the Finance Committee that oversees trade legislation, as the next U.S. ambassador to China. Baucus has been a leader in pressing for a trade bill.

"I talked to Max Baucus about this," Portman said in an interview on Bloomberg Television's "Political Capital with Al Hunt," airing this weekend. "Before he leaves, we're going to get some stuff done," said Portman, who sits on the Finance Committee and was U.S. trade representative under President George W. Bush.

Earlier this month, Baucus and his House counterpart, Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., agreed on legislation that would let the White House negotiate trade deals that Congress would approve on an up-or-down vote, without amendments that can sink or stall most legislation.

Portman's interview also touched on a topic that the senator hasn't addressed much since earlier this year. Portman, who revealed that his son is gay in announcing his support for same-sex marriage, said the reaction he's gotten from his colleagues has been "very strong" in support of his decision.

His position shift has led younger voters to be more open to his positions on economic and other matters, Portman said.

Portman, a former White House budget director, called the budget agreement passed by the Senate Dec. 18 "a very small step, a baby step in the right direction" to address broader fiscal issues.

Portman, 58, was one of nine Republicans who joined all Democrats in backing the measure, which the Senate passed by 64-36 and sent to Obama for his signature.

While the bill's passage marks a pause in the brinkmanship that led to the first government shutdown in 17 years, whether it will lead to a broader tax-and-spending agreement is yet to be determined.

The legislation will stave off and replace some of the automatic spending cuts that were set to take effect next year and establishes a budget framework for the next two years.

The deal doesn't address the main drivers of the nation's debt and deficit. For long-term deficit reduction, lawmakers would need to make changes to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which combined make up almost half of federal spending.

"It did not address the underlying problem," Portman said. Entitlements are "where all the growth is. If we don't address it, it will bankrupt the country," he said.

The next fiscal challenge will be to raise U.S. borrowing authority, which could be exhausted as soon as February, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in a letter this week to House Speaker John Boehner urging Congress to act as soon as possible.

Republicans in Congress including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have said they won't agree to raise the U.S. debt ceiling without concessions from Democrats.

Republicans should press for cuts to entitlement programs, such as increasing premiums for wealthier Medicare recipients, as the price for a debt-ceiling increase, Portman said.

"We've got to get at those," he said. "The only time we've done it in the last three decades has been through a debt limit discussion."

Among the concessions Republicans are considering are a delay or repeal of the individual mandate in the health-care law, and energy and tax-code changes. Republicans probably will set their plans after an annual policy retreat in late January.

Portman said Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is doing the right thing by beginning to slow the central bank's bond-purchasing program, a stimulus effort that's defined Bernanke's chairmanship.

The Fed may taper its buying by about $10 billion per gathering if the economy improves as forecast, Bernanke said on Dec. 18. "I'm worried about a bubble forming if we don't begin tapering," said Portman.

Portman played down the chances that Baucus's departure from Congress and as Senate Finance chairman could slow momentum for the biggest changes to the tax code since 1986. Baucus had traveled the country promoting changes with Camp, and released discussion drafts on four areas of tax policy.

Baucus's likely successor is Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who is an ardent advocate of tax simplification.

"Ron's been very aggressive on that," Portman said.

Still, Portman said Wyden and Camp may still be able to meet their goal of advancing a tax revamp in 2014. "It can still happen," Portman said.

The interview ended with Portman reflecting on his decision to change his position on gay marriage, something he's spoken little of since earlier this year.

"I still focus, as I always have, on the economic and fiscal issues," a job that's been made easier by his son's decision to discuss his gay status publicly, he said.

"It's almost a threshold issue for a lot of young people," said Portman. "Once you get over that threshold, you can then engage on some of the more economic and fiscal issues that do affect them and their future."