Portman, fan of a big tax cut for the rich, won’t say whether he supports $2T in coronavirus relief

Two lines of cars wait for food assistance at the All People's Fresh Market in Columbus. Officials say covid-related food insecurity is growing in Ohio. Photo by Marty Schladen, Ohio Capital Journal.

A double line of cars waited at a South Columbus food bank Tuesday, at times backing onto Parsons Avenue and holding up traffic.

At the same time, the office of Ohio Sen. Rob Portman wouldn’t say whether he’s one of the Senate Republicans unwilling to support a coronavirus-relief bill under negotiation between the Trump White House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, on Tuesday warned the White House not to agree to the bill because the $2 trillion price tag was too high for many in his caucus. That message comes as hopes of passing a relief bill before next year seem to be dimming.

With a raging virus continuing to throttle the economy, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell earlier this month urged passage of a relief bill to avoid lasting damage. Many other economists have been making the same argument, while those who study poverty say legions of Americans are being added to its numbers.

In Ohio, those who work with the poor warn of cascading homelessness and say food banks are seeing huge demand, including at the All People’s Fresh Market in Columbus’s South End.

After passage of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act in March, the Democratically controlled House in May passed a $3.4 trillion coronavirus relief bill that wasn’t taken up by the Republican-controlled Senate.

It wasn’t until late July — as federal unemployment supplements were running out — that McConnell introduced his own bill. But he later admitted that he didn’t have enough votes in his own caucus to pass it.

Earlier this month, just after a covid-infected Trump was released from the hospital, he abruptly broke off negotiations with House Democrats. Then he abruptly reversed himself again and by Tuesday he was saying he wanted a bigger package than the $2.2 trillion deal being pushed by Pelosi and the Democrats. 

For his part, McConnell has been promoting a bill less than an fourth that size — $500 billion — that would have included an unemployment supplement and aid to schools. Democrats blocked it Wednesday, saying the bill was woefully inadequate.

On Tuesday, McConnell gave another reason for not wanting to schedule a hearing on a larger bill: It could disrupt the breakneck schedule to confirm Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett before the Nov. 3 election, the Washington Post reported.

That brought a blast from Ohio’s Democratic senator, Sherrod Brown.

“Once again, Mitch McConnell is telling Americans, ‘you’re on your own,’” Brown said in an email. “Millions of people are suffering right now and he would rather stall a COVID relief package to continue rushing through an illegitimate Supreme Court nomination. Workers are struggling to figure out how to pay their bills, stay in their homes, and keep their families safe while McConnell would rather focus on his power grab.”

Portman’s staff wouldn’t answer directly when asked whether he supported a relief bill of about $2 trillion, roughly the size of that being negotiated between House Democrats and the Trump administration.

“Rob has consistently called on both parties to come to an agreement on additional covid relief for families and small businesses — legislation that would support increased (coronavirus) testing, provide additional funding for schools and state and local communities, restart the Payment Protection Program, and provide needed liability protections,” spokeswoman Emmalee Cioffi said in an email.

She also provided a transcript of a Sept. 10 speech Portman gave on the Senate floor in which he castigated the earlier covid-relief bill passed by House Democrats as too expensive.

“It’s a $3.5 trillion bill,” Portman said. “And remember, we’ve already spent about $3.5 trillion making this the largest deficit in the history of our country and making our debt now, for the first time since World War II, the size of our entire economy. That concerns all of us, and it should.”

Portman also was highly critical of Obama-era deficit spending amid a historic recession.

But he wasn’t nearly so concerned about deficits in 2017 when he was pushing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act at a time when the federal unemployment rate was 4.1%

Portman claimed the $1.5 trillion tax cut — which gave massive breaks to the richest Americans — would stimulate so much economic growth that it would pay for itself, although such promises almost never have panned out in American history.

Portman’s promise was quickly shown to be empty, and by early 2018, the tax cut was projected to add more than $1.3 trillion to the deficit over 10 years. Nor did it deliver the economic growth that Portman, Trump and McConnell promised, the Congressional Research Service reported last year.

Just before Congress passed the tax cuts, Portman told WKSU that he’d support clawing them back if they didn’t produce the promised growth. So far, that hasn’t happened, either.