By Deirdre Shesgreen
May 12, 2014
WASHINGTON – In a major speech Tuesday, Sen. Rob Portman will add his voice to a growing debate among Republicans over how to reduce poverty in America – an issue several GOP presidential hopefuls have tackled in recent months.
The Ohio Republican will spell out a set of anti-poverty measures – from curbing prison recidivism to fixing failed job-training programs – in remarks scheduled for Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank in Washington.
Portman is calling his approach "constructive conservatism," which has echoes of President George W. Bush's embrace of "compassionate conservatism."
Portman's speech comes as income inequality takes center stage in the 2014 elections, with President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats pushing an increase in the minimum wage and other politically popular proposals aimed at bolstering the middle class. Portman's entry into the debate is also timed to mark the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty.
"There's been a lot of discussion about the fact that the War on Poverty was not won," Portman said in a brief interview Monday. "I want to speak out as a Republican and as a conservative, saying we should be addressing these issues."
Portman is the latest high-profile Republican to tackle the issue. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky – all possible presidential contenders – have outlined anti-poverty plans this year. Ryan has criticized current federal poverty programs as expensive and ineffective, saying the focus needs to shift from how much the government spends to how well the programs work. Rubio has called for giving anti-poverty funds to the states in the form of block grants. Paul has talked about creating "economic freedom zones" to help revitalize urban areas.
Some anti-poverty advocates might be skeptical of Portman's push on this issue. He recently voted to block a bill that would increase the federal minimum wage, for example, and he supported limits on eligibility for the federal food stamp program. The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law gave Portman a 27 percent rating on its 2012 scorecard, compared to 100 percent for Ohio's other senator, Sherrod Brown, a Democrat.
Brown said if Republicans really want to tackle poverty, they should start by supporting a minimum wage hike and expanding the earned income tax credit. "We know tried and true both of those actions will bring hundreds of thousands of Ohioans out of poverty," he said.
Political experts say it's not clear if Portman – who was on the vice presidential short list of GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 – is trying to position himself as a national candidate ahead of the 2016 presidential campaign or if he wants to help reshape the Republican Party amid efforts to broaden the GOP's appeal.
Portman may be floating "a trial balloon" for the 2016 presidential contest, said Lawrence Mead, a professor of political science at New York University and an expert on the politics of poverty.
Similarly, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who served as an economic adviser during the Bush administration and on Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign, said Portman might be maneuvering for a presidential run but that it's too early to say for certain. "He's clearly trying to signal that he's interested in being a leader on policy in the Senate."
Portman has said he's not angling for the White House, although he hasn't ruled out a national run.
Portman is not new to the issue. He has worked on poverty-related issues for years, particularly on efforts to reduce drug addiction and strengthen re-entry programs to help ex-convicts rebuild productive lives. When he was in the House, Portman helped win passage of the Second Chance Act, which authorizes federal grants for state and local initiatives aimed at reducing recidivism. He is now pushing for reauthorization of that measure.
Whatever the goal, Holtz-Eakin and other experts said Portman's move is a good one.
"If conservatives just look like they're defending the 1 percent and look mean at the same time ... then that's disastrous for them," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at AEI. "There is a genuine problem with inequality," he said, and Republicans ignore it at their peril.
More than 46 million Americans live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's most recent figures. In 2012, the poverty rate was 15 percent, according to the Census Bureau.
While stock prices and corporate profits have shot back up after the recession, many Americans are still struggling amid stubbornly high unemployment rates and stagnant wages. Obama and other Democrats have highlighted the growing gap between rich and poor, with the president calling it the "defining issue of our time."
With the GOP blocking a minimum-wage hike in the Senate and an extension of unemployment benefits in the House, the issue has become part of the Democrats' line of attack in the midterm elections.
Read More: http://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/politics/elections/2014/05/12/sen-portman-targets-us-poverty/9017467/