Van Hollen engaged in spending, deficit fray

Last year, Rep. Chris Van Hollen had the unenviable job of leading the House Democratic campaign operation through the party's worst election since 1938.

These days, as the top-ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, the Montgomery County lawmaker is engrossed in what might qualify as an even more daunting challenge: defending Democratic spending priorities at time when the party has its smallest minority in decades.

Republicans regained the House majority on promises to rein in spiraling federal budget deficits. Their efforts to make good on the pledge have dominated the agenda in Congress — leading to the brinksmanship that nearly caused a government shutdown last month, and fueling an intense battle over whether to raise the nation's $14.3 trillion debt limit.

And that leaves the 52-year-old Van Hollen once again in one of the most difficult jobs in politics.

"What we're trying to do is maximize our ability to shape events even while we're in the minority," the fifth-term congressman told The Baltimore Sun. "The [budget] committee is clearly going to be a forum for the national conversation on the best way to move the country forward."

A close ally of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Van Hollen has steered the national conversation during the last two election cycles as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which doles out money, campaign advice and television advertising to the party's House candidates.

After orchestrating the expansion of the party's House majority in 2008 — and foreseeing a far more difficult election ahead in 2010 — Van Hollen initially said he did not want to lead the campaign committee for a second term. Pelosi, then the House speaker, urged him to continue, added to his responsibilities and placed him on a leadership track in Congress.

On the budget committee, his top task is to provide a counterweight to Republican Chairman Paul Ryan. The Wisconsin lawmaker, a rising star in the GOP, has challenged the White House with a budget proposal that would slash taxes and spending while fundamentally changing Medicare and other entitlement programs.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that Ryan's plan, which was approved by the House last month, would put the government back into the black by 2040. It is not expected to win approval in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Van Hollen has used appearances on the Sunday political shows and speeches at think tanks in Washington to push two broad messages on the budget: That the Ryan proposal would undermine Medicare — forcing seniors to pay more for health coverage — and that Congress is going to have to raise taxes in addition to cutting spending if it wants to balance the nation's books.

"Any politically viable plan is going to require both," Van Hollen said. "This is going to be the big question. To get to a bipartisan agreement, there's going to have to be give and take."

The former Maryland state lawmaker has long proved his mettle in the fray, having arrived in Congress in 2003 on a pair of upsets: a primary election win over Kennedy family member Mark Shriver and a victory in November against incumbent Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella.

Van Hollen, who studied at Swarthmore, Harvard and Georgetown, is taken seriously by many Republicans — including Ryan.

"He's probably one of the best articulators of the Democrats' position ... but he does it without being too partisan," Ryan said in an interview. "He keeps the level of debate where it ought to be — at a high level."

Van Hollen and other Democrats have called for rolling back income tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 under President George W. Bush for families who earn more than $250,000 a year — a move the Obama administration projects would increase federal revenue by $678 billion over the next decade. Republicans, and some conservative Democrats, have countered that raising taxes on wealthy Americans and small businesses could harm the fragile economic recovery.

Another idea gaining traction in Washington is to rewrite the nation's complicated tax code to weed out special breaks and loopholes. The approach was championed by the fiscal reform commission co-chaired by Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator, and Erskine Bowles, a White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton.

Tax code changes are likely on the table for a bipartisan group of senators, known as the Gang of Six, that has been working privately on a solution to rising deficits.

Republicans and Democrats in Washington have grappled over three fiscal measures since January. The first was a spending bill needed to avoid a government shutdown. That measure, negotiated hours before federal agencies were set to shutter, will keep the government running through the end of September.

Lawmakers are now debating a budget to guide spending for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Separately, the government is rapidly approaching a deadline this summer to raise its $14.3 trillion debt limit or risk defaulting on its credit — a failure that policymakers on both sides of the aisle say would have a calamitous impact on the global economy.

Ordinarily, raising the limit is a routine vote. But in the current climate, Republicans and some Democrats say they will not support it unless it is paired with commitments to cut spending.

As a senator, President Barack Obama voted against raising the debt limit in 2006, a position a White House spokesman said he now believes was a "mistake."

Budget negotiations ultimately will take place among House Republicans, Senate Democrats and the White House. But Van Hollen will still play an important role, experts say, as a spokesman and also as a member of a bipartisan deficit reduction panel of lawmakers chaired by Vice President Joe Biden. That group will hold its first meeting on Thursday.

"Van Hollen certainly has a stake in the process," said Ryan McConaghy, director of the economic program at Third Way, a left-of-center think tank in Washington. "He's clearly somebody who has established himself as a leader who has the respect of the caucus."

Ryan's budget proposal riveted Washington, earning praise from conservatives and scorn from Obama. Days later, Van Hollen issued a plan of his own, to far less attention.

The Van Hollen proposal, which failed a House vote, hewed closely to broad outlines proposed by the president, cutting billions of dollars in defense spending while raising taxes on families earning more than $250,000 a year.

Van Hollen's decision to draft a budget came partly in response to criticism of his Democratic predecessor on the budget committee. South Carolina Rep. John M. Spratt, who chaired the committee last year, did not produce a budget at all — and became one of the highest-ranking Democrats to lose his seat last November.

"The previous chairman was highly respected but very low-key," said Stan Collender, a budget expert with the Washington-based business consulting firm Qorvis Communications. "They were looking for a younger, energetic communicator."

Van Hollen was born in Karachi, Pakistan, to a U.S. foreign service officer and a State Department intelligence analyst. His Baltimore-born father served as ambassador to Sri Lanka in the 1970s under Republican Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford. His mother accurately predicted the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and wrote presciently about the dangers of the Taliban and extremist Islamist groups.

Van Hollen served as an aide to Republican Sen. Charles McC. Mathias and to Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer, and worked with Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes as a staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was elected to one term in the state House of Delegates and two in the state Senate.

He took over the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2007 from then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who had led the party back to the majority in the wave election of 2006.

Under Van Hollen, Democrats gained 21 more members in 2008, before suffering the 63-seat rout and the loss of the majority in 2010. Those experiences gave him an intimate knowledge of the swing districts across the country that decide which party controls the House.

That knowledge could prove beneficial when it comes time to persuade skittish House Democrats to defend the party's budget priorities in the final voting later this year.

"He is very, very in tune with all the different parts of the United States that our caucus represents," said Rep. Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat who also serves on the budget committee. "He understands that all politics is local."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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