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Sen. Portman on Liz Cheney, infrastructure plans, and taxing the wealthy

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss Wednesday's leadership vote in the house that ousted Rep. Liz Cheney and President Joe Biden's infrastructure meeting with congressional leaders. Prior to serving in the Senate, Portman was the O.M.B. director during the Bush-Cheney administration, and previously also served as a member on the House Republican Leadership Team.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We turn now to a lawmaker for a response to today's House GOP vote and the president's infrastructure plan, on this day when he did meet with congressional leaders.

    He's Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio. And we should say, prior to serving in the Senate, he was director of the Office of Management and Budget during the Bush/Cheney administration. The senator was also a member of the Republican leadership team when he served in the House.

    Senator Portman, welcome back to the "NewsHour." It's very good…

  • Sen. Rob Portman:

    Good to be with you again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it's very good to have you with us.

    But let me start with the move by House leadership today to remove Liz Cheney as the number three leader there for the party in the House.

    You have said that she's a friend of yours. You have said she's done a good job representing the party. Was this a mistake today?

  • Rob Portman:

    Well, it's up to them. I mean, I'm on the Senate side, as you said. And the House Republicans have worked there will. I would have voted a different way.

    But I do think they want to change the topic back to the policy issues. And I noted, in your reporting earlier, that someone said that Republicans here in the House and the Senate do not question the legitimacy of Joe Biden as president.

    I think that's true in the Senate, certainly. I have been in meetings at the White House, as you know, including meetings on infrastructure, which I know is something you want to talk about today. And I don't get any sense from my colleagues that that's an issue.

    So I think part of what they decided was, they wanted to move on and talk about the policy issues.

    But Liz Cheney is a friend. I think she's a valuable member of the team. She will continue to be a really able spokesperson, particularly on foreign policy issues.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator, as you know, there's a contradiction, because I hear what you're saying and I hear what Kevin McCarthy is saying about, yes, we accept Joe Biden.

    But, as we all know, former President Trump does not accept that the election was held legitimately. And Liz Cheney was saying that out loud, and she's being punished for it. So, the message is that it's fealty to President Trump, rather than issues, that are driving the Republican Party.

    Is that the right message for the future?

  • Rob Portman:

    No.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Rob Portman:

    I mean, the right message for the future is to focus on the policy issues. And they're stark right now.

    And when President Biden talks about raising taxes at a time when the economy is coming out of this COVID-19 recovery, it concerns me greatly. When he talks about more spending, and $6 trillion more spending now, when you add everything up, that concerns me greatly.

    And so we have got just huge differences on policy. We ought to focus on those. And this infrastructure package that I know you want to talk about today, when you look at it, Judy, it's hard to call it infrastructure.

    Even the most generous description of infrastructure, which would include broadband, let's say, water infrastructure and electric grid, would only amount to about 20 percent of what he wants to spend money on. So, a lot of it is, as you know, other worthy causes, like nursing home spending, or spending on health care generally. It's spending for electric car companies and so on.

    But it's not infrastructure by any definition. So, if we could focus on the infrastructure part, which is about 20 percent of what he's talking about, roads and bridges about 5 or 6 percent of it, and then talk about the pay-fors for that, which I think are out there, I think we can get something done here.

    I'm very optimistic about it. And my hope is that the meetings this week at the White House will be productive.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you're saying some of what President Biden is proposing, you're prepared to go along with, some of the infrastructure and some of the tax piece of this as well. Am I hearing you correctly?

  • Rob Portman:

    Well, here's here's what I think.

    I think about $600 billion is about where Republicans are going to end up. The proposal is about $568 billion. So that includes sort of all forms of traditional infrastructure-plus, because it includes things like broadband and so on. The president may be at about $900 billion, as I understand it, when you look at a comparison, apples-to apples comparison, number of years, and so on.

    So we're far apart, in the sense of $300 billion is a lot of money, but not very far apart as compared to what many are reporting, which is that his proposal is $2.3 trillion and in ours is 500-some, because the fact is, most of that is not infrastructure.

    So, if we focus on infrastructure, I think we can get it done. Raising taxes is not the right thing to do. There are other ways to pay for infrastructure. As you know, user fees have traditionally been used. That makes a lot of sense, but also using things that we currently do use, like using the ability for the government to go to borrow at lower rates, and then to be able to get the private sector engaged, or the local communities engaged.

    So, the funding right now that's used for roads and bridges is often that kind of funding. People have talked about an infrastructure bank, which I support, which is essentially that same methodology.

    So there are ways to find the funding for infrastructure that are different, in that it's a long-term capital expense, as compared to, say, a programmatic expense. So, I think there's a way to get there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I do want to ask you about the how do you pay for it piece, because you're mentioning user fees. These often fall on average-income Americans, middle-income Americans, whereas what President Biden has proposed is taxing the wealthy.

    And, in fact, if you look at the history of tax — income tax in this country, today, corporate taxes, for one, are only about a fourth as large as a share of the GDP as they were back in the 1950s and '60s. Revenue collected from taxes on the income of the top earners in this country has declined over the last 25 years. Plus, in the 1990s, the last time tax rates were what President Biden wants them to be, the economy was booming.

    So, my question is, why not take a look at these tax hikes?

  • Rob Portman:

    Well, we have a more recent example, Judy, which is the 2017 tax reforms and tax cuts, which resulted in this incredible economy prior to the COVID-19 crisis.

    In February of last year, just before COVID-19 hit, we had 19 straight months of wage growth of 3 percent or more, most of that wage growth among lower- and middle-income workers. We had the lowest poverty rate in the history of our country going back to the late 1950s. We had historically low unemployment for a number of groups, including Asian Americans, Blacks, Hispanics.

    We also had a situation where the economy was growing overall, but it was an inclusive economy. And I would think that's what everybody would want, to have more people coming in off the sidelines.

    And so the idea of going back and raising those taxes now that proved to make us more competitive would be a big mistake. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Rob Portman:

    … when we reduce the taxes that President Biden would now like to increase, that 70 percent of that benefit was going into workers' pockets, because benefits and salaries and wages for workers was where the benefit was found.

    And that's why you had, again, this wage growth, which was so impressive, and we hadn't had it for a couple decades.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just…

  • Rob Portman:

    So, we need to be very careful to raise taxes right now. There are other ways to pay for it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One other thing I want to ask you quickly about, Senator, you mentioned items in there that you don't support.

    And part of what the president is trying to do with both the jobs, infrastructure and the Families Plan is to provide home health care, childcare. And this is at a time when there's a waiting list, we're told, of something like 800,000 people who are looking for help at home taking care of an elderly family member or a child.

    What do you do about that? And why isn't now the moment to look at that issue, when so many women have had to leave the work force in this pandemic?

  • Rob Portman:

    Well, we should definitely look at those issues.

    And we should also reopen our schools, Judy, because one of the things that all the data shows is that, you're right, more women are not going back to the work force. And when you dig deeper, part of it is that not all the schools have reopened. And so that — that's something that should and can be solved relatively quickly.

    But I agree that, with regard to childcare, we need to come up with better ways to reduce the cost, and also with regard to family medical leave. So, I think there's some — there's some opportunities here.

    My point is that, if you're going to focus on infrastructure, let's focus on the actual hard assets that are always considered to be infrastructure. And let's come up with ways to pay for those that are something that has always been done on a bipartisan basis.

    The user fees I'm talking about includes the Highway Trust Fund, which would support over $200 billion of this just by the existing gas tax. And why should electric vehicles not be subject to some sort of charge to be able to use our roads and bridges?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Rob Portman:

    I have a hybrid vehicle. I should be able to — I should be charged for using roads and bridges as people that have gasoline engines.

    So, I think there's a way to do this without hurting working families, but also providing the funding for this long-term infrastructure, which is a good long-term investment for our country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I hope we have the chance to talk about a number of these issues again in the future.

    Senator Portman, thank you.

  • Rob Portman:

    Thanks, Judy. Great to be on with you.

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