By Robert Koenig
One is a first-term Missouri Democrat under constant fire from GOP critics taking aim at her Senate seat. The other is an Ohio Republican who is considered a potential running mate for presumed GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Despite their political differences, U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill and Rob Portman -- the chairperson and ranking Republican on the Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight -- have cooperated on some issues, including an inquiry into government PR contracts and a tariff-related measure that they hope to offer in the Senate this week.
On Wednesday, the two senators said they are seeking a Senate vote on their amendment that would respect the current ban on "earmarks" -- a ban that McCaskill had helped engineer -- by changing the way in which U.S. companies get tariff suspensions on imported products (such as certain chemicals) that aren't made or available in this country. Instead of having to convince a member of Congress to sponsor the duty suspensions, firms could go directly through the International Trade Commission.
"It's just a matter of saying that companies are not required to hire a lobbyist, and spend more money than they need to, to get tariff relief in order to manufacture products in America," McCaskill told reporters.
In the conference call, Portman said the amendment -- also introduced as a stand-alone bill -- "cleans up what is now a lobbyist-driven process. We're putting forth a process that gives businesses more certainty and less reliance on the political process. It creates a transparent, merit-based process" with the ITC doing the screening of data on the tariff reduction requests.
McCaskill said backers of their amendment have some leverage because, without the change she and Portman advocate, this year's major "miscellaneous tariff" bill -- which compiles hundreds of duty-suspension requests from members of Congress -- could be held up by objections that it violates the temporary ban on earmarks.
"The leverage we have is: "Hey, if you want to get this year's 'miscellaneous tariffs' through, you need to work with us on reform,'" McCaskill said. Portman told reporters that his Missouri colleague was "absolutely right" in her assessment of the legislative leverage. He added: "Getting the amendment to the [Senate] floor would be a great opportunity for us to inform more of our colleagues about what the real issues are here."
The duty-suspension process has relevance to Missouri and Illinois, where many companies -- from chemical firms to footwear producers or marketers -- rely on imported raw materials. According to a list of tariff requests compiled by the House Ways and Means Committee, five Missouri lawmakers -- including U.S. Reps. William Lacy Clay and Russ Carnahan, both D-St. Louis -- have filed a total of at least 87 such requests in this session of Congress alone.
McCaskill and Portman said that, if they are unable to add their bipartisan amendment to the small business bill that the Senate is debating this week, they will try later this summer or fall to append it to another legislative vehicle.
The tariff issue is the most recent of several initiatives on which McCaskill and Portman have collaborated, mostly since Portman -- a former director of the Office of Management and Budget during the administration of then-President George W. Bush -- became the subcommittee's top Republican member early last year.
On April 17, Portman said a McCaskill-chaired hearing on failures in wartime contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan was "incredibly important" because it is vital for Congress "to examine the lessons we have learned about wartime contracting from our experience over the last decade" in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In February, Portman and McCaskill announced that -- as a followup to a March 2011 subcommittee hearing into a sole-source $234,000 public affairs contract by the federal General Services Administration to a Kansas City PR firm -- they had launched a much wider inquiry into the federal government's spending on outside PR contracts.
The two senators sent letters to all 11 federal agencies asking for a full accounting of "contracts for the acquisition of public relations, publicity, advertising, communications or similar services," starting in October 2008. The subcommittee staff is analyzing the responses.
Portman aides have sought to put a political cast on the inquiry -- with one saying it would probe the current administration's "use of taxpayer-funded spin" on issues such as the impact of the Affordable Care Act. But McCaskill's staffers say the inquiry will be an even-handed look at whether such PR contracts are abused.
"It's an ongoing investigation," a McCaskill spokesman said Wednesday.