Budget debate unfolds at opportune time for Van Hollen

Just two weeks after Rep. Chris Van Hollen announced his candidacy for the Senate, the legislative calendar has thrust him into a high-profile fight over the federal budget on Capitol Hill that will almost certainly have implications for his campaign in Maryland.

The Montgomery County Democrat, the first to enter the race to replace retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, will have a national platform in coming days from which to present a message that's just as compatible with the fledgling Senate race as it is for the budget debate.

Van Hollen's role as the top-ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee means he will serve as critic-in-chief as Republican lawmakers try to bring their $3.8 trillion spending plan to the floor next week.

"To the extent that he gets on television championing Democratic budget priorities, that's good for the budget and is good for Chris Van Hollen," said Democratic state Sen. James C. Rosapepe, a longtime observer of Maryland politics who has not endorsed anyone in the Senate race.

But the position also presents challenges, some of which have been underscored by national liberal groups that have attempted to draw distinctions between Van Hollen and the only other candidate to enter the race so far, Rep. Donna F. Edwards of Prince George's County.

Only one other potential candidate is likely to get as much national press as Van Hollen in coming days: Rep. Elijah E. Cummings. The Baltimore Democrat, who is considering a run for the seat — and whose entrance would change the contest's dynamics — is in demand to discuss scandals involving the U.S. Secret Service.

Cummings is the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has scheduled another hearing on the matter for Tuesday.

Many others are considering a run for the seat, including Reps. John Delaney, John P. Sarbanes and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger. Former NAACP President Ben Jealous and former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend are also eyeing it.

The Republican field is less clear, but Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. are among the potential candidates.

But for now, at least, the timing of the budget battle in Congress is playing to Van Hollen's strengths.

"So many times I happen to randomly turn on my television and see my own congressman," said state Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat who endorsed Van Hollen this week.

He has been a frequent guest recently on national television and radio, and has held daily media events to hammer the GOP budget proposal for cutting financial aid for students, rolling back the Affordable Care Act and trimming food stamps.

The message — that the budget is "out of step with the values and priorities of the country" or that it "would not pass muster with Enron accountants" — is likely to resonate with Democratic campaign donors and primary voters in Maryland just as much as it will influence the Democratic message in Washington.

Van Hollen, 56, will present the Democratic alternative next week.

Asked Friday about the spillover from the budget into the Senate race, Van Hollen quickly steered his answer back to talking points.

"I will do what I've done every year with respect to these budgets, which is to ... make clear why the Republican budget is bad for the country, bad for working people," he said.

While the budget might give him a political lift next week, his position also has the potential to be a liability. Several progressive groups are criticizing Van Hollen for comments he made in 2012 suggesting a deficit reduction plan known as Simpson-Bowles could serve as a "framework" for a broader budget deal.

The bipartisan Simpson-Bowles plan called for lowering cost-of-living increases for seniors on Social Security and raising the retirement age.

Van Hollen never endorsed those specific ideas — in fact, he fought the Obama administration when the White House floated the idea of reducing the cost-of-living adjustments — but some liberal groups say Van Hollen's position on the issue could be stronger.

His sole opponent in the Senate race, Edwards, reiterated the point Friday.

"Sometimes these distinctions are without a difference, but there is a difference on Social Security," Edwards told WAMU in an interview. "I have a different lived experience that I think is important to be reflected in the Senate and from the state of Maryland."

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, a mentor to Van Hollen, defended his record Thursday, suggesting it was no different from that of any of the other Democrats considering a run for Senate in Maryland.

"I have every confidence in Mr. Van Hollen," Pelosi said. "In every case, quite frankly, he has been the champion on these issues."

That prompted the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org to say that it disagreed with Pelosi's position. "You can't be a teetotaler while swigging moonshine, and you can't be a Social Security champion while supporting Simpson-Bowles," MoveOn spokesman Nick Berning said in a statement.

Van Hollen was named the top Democrat on the budget committee after Republicans captured control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections. He is one of four lawmakers to have served on both the 2011 super committee and a debt commission led by Vice President Joe Biden in 2010.

Republicans have faced turmoil within their ranks on the budget, as deficit hawks have run up against members of the party who want to spend more on defense. That internal struggle is expected to be front and center next week as GOP leadership brings the budget to the floor.

Congressional budgets tend to be more important as political statements than in determining how federal money is actually spent, which is decided through the separate appropriations process.

Still, the blueprint will have implications for Maryland insofar as it is likely to continue deep spending cuts known as sequestration. Economists say the cuts have had an outsized impact in Maryland and Virginia, owing to their proximity to Washington.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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