Sen. Rob Portman on the opioid epidemic and being Trump’s running mate

Katie Couric
Global Anchor

By Alex Bregman

On May 13, Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman joined Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric on “Yahoo News Live” to discuss a growing epidemic in the United States: addiction to prescription painkillers and heroin, known as opioids. He also weighed in on his party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Donald Trump, whom Portman met with on Thursday during Trump’s visit to Capitol Hill.

Opioid abuse has become a key issue on the campaign trail for Portman in Ohio, where he faces a tough reelection fight against former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland. Portman’s home state has been hit particularly hard by the epidemic. “It’s the No. 1 cause of death in my state of Ohio, but probably around the country that’s now true, exceeding car accidents,” he said. “The stories are just heart-wrenching.”

This week the House of Representatives passed a round of legislation intended to address the growing opioid abuse epidemic: The rate of overdose deaths involving opioids has increased 200 percent between 2000 and 2014. The House bills were passed after Portman’s own bill, known as the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), passed in the Senate by a vote of 94 to 1 in March. “About three years ago, we started a process to put together a comprehensive approach to this problem that focuses on prevention, but also treatment and recovery,” Portman said. “That’s called CARA: the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery [Act]. After three years and five conferences in Washington bringing the best experts in from around the country, getting best practices.”

So why is this epidemic now a priority in Congress? “I think because it’s affecting every single state and every congressional district in America,” Portman said.

Speaking of the potential differences between the House and Senate legislation, he said: “The difference between the CARA legislation we passed [in] the Senate and the 18 or 19 bills that passed the House is relatively small, so I’m hopeful we can now go into conference and come out with a comprehensive approach, get it to the president’s desk and get it to our communities to begin helping more.”

One criticism the Democrats and the White House have of both the Senate and House approaches is whether the bills have been properly funded. Portman said: “This legislation does have about $100 million in additional funding not just for this year, but going forward for next year and the year after and the year after and so on. But it also directs the money to what we think is the most effective way to get good treatment and get people into the long-term recovery that works. But I think even additional funding may be necessary, even in the short term.”

Moving on to presidential politics, Portman described his meeting with Trump on Thursday as “a listening session.” “It was a very good discussion,” he said. “I thought both sides listened well, which is the first step toward understanding where somebody else stands.”

He also explained why he backs Trump. “I think there’s a desperate need for change, and so I am supporting Donald Trump, and I think these meetings yesterday were sort of a first step toward coming together with some common ground on some of these tough issues,” Portman said.

Portman also described his policy differences with Trump, which include disagreements over Trump’s immigration plan, his idea of a temporary ban on Muslim immigration and his suggestion that the U.S. could print more money to avoid default. “I guess what I would say is if you were to give me the list of Hillary Clinton’s positions that you would find even more disagreements, and that I do agree with him entirely on some other issues,” he said. 

Does he think Trump will help him more than hurt him in his reelection effort in Ohio? Portman was not sure. “Well, who knows? I’m running my own campaign and would have done that regardless of who is at the top of the ticket,” he said. 

Finally, Portman’s name has also been floated as a potential running mate for Trump, but he didn’t seem to be into the idea when Couric asked him about it. “I’m happy representing Ohio, so I’m not interested,” Portman said. “I really think it’s crucial right now to keep Ohio as one of the Republican states to keep that majority because it may determine the majority in the Senate.”

When further pressed about whether he would like to be on Trump’s short or long list of potential vice presidential picks, Portman said: “I’d like to stay off the list and continue to do what I do best, which is to reach across the aisle and get stuff done.”