Van Hollen engaged in spending, deficit fray

As ranking member on the House Budget Committee, the Montgomery County Democrat is a chief spokesman for party

  • Rep. Chris Van Hollen speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on April 14. The Montgomery County Democrat is the chief spokesman for his party on Republican-led House Budget Committee.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen speaks during a news conference at the… (Mark Wilson, Getty Images )
May 01, 2011|By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON — — 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.

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