Chris Van Hollen: ‘I don’t think anybody knows how it ends. And that’s a very dangerous place to be in.’

September 24, 2013

Chris Van Hollen is the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. We spoke Monday about the possibility of a government shutdown and a debt ceiling breach. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Chip Somodevilla - GETTY IMAGES)
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Ezra Klein: How do you see the continuing resolution playing out?

Chris Van Hollen: It’s very  difficult to predict. We don’t know exactly how this will play out in the Senate. The best guess is that Harry Reid and the Senate Democrats will strip out the provision that eliminates the Affordable Care Act and send it back to the House. The question then is what Speaker Boehner does. We just don’t know what his plans are. If he decides to attach some other demand to the CR and send it back to the Senate, then you would have a government shutdown.

EK: What’s got a lot of people more worried is how that could play into the debt ceiling. It seems possible that Boehner will pass the CR by telling his caucus to wait instead and fight on the debt ceiling. That’s a lot more dangerous. So how do you see the interaction of those two?

CVH: My concern all along has been that Speaker Boehner was going to double down on the debt ceiling. Early on he told his caucus not to wage this fight on the CR but to wait for the debt ceiling. The danger there is that while a government shutdown is very bad, defaulting on the debt is catastrophic. Speaker Boehner thinks he has more leverage threatening to shut down the economy than the government. But I think he’s deluding himself if he thinks the president will allow Republicans to gut the Affordable Care Act as part of the negotiation.

EK: There’s a sense among Republicans, though, that it worked pretty well for them in 2011.

CVH: Recall that in 2011 the action around the debt ceiling was preceded by months of negotiations. You had the Biden talks. You had talks between president and speaker. In this case, when it came to the budget, House Republicans refused to go to conference with Senate Democrats. They've refused to talk.

I think there are two reasons they want to take this to the precipice. One is that they think they have more leverage there. The other is they can't agree among themselves. You can only negotiate if you have the authority to cut a deal, and Speaker Boehner obviously doesn’t have that authority.

EK: The Republican argument here is that the debt ceiling gives them leverage. Democrats can talk tough all they want, but when this White House is actually staring at default, they’re going to come to the table and negotiate.

CVH: Well, that’s not going to happen this year. The president has been emphatic. And there are a couple of reasons for that. One is that in 2011, we put in place the Budget Control Act which resulted in the sequester and is currently in place and damaging economic growth. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that we’re likely to have about one million fewer jobs in this country at this time next year because of the sequester. That’s a huge self-inflicted wound. The president has been very clear that he wants to negotiate to replace the sequester in a balanced way, but Republicans have refused. There’s really not much left that the president can give, and he’s certainly not going to give into outrageous demands like stopping the Affordable Care Act.

EK: The GOP’s view is that it won’t be the president who gives in on that. It will be vulnerable House and Senate Democrats who are looking at reelection in 2014, looking at Obamacare’s low poll numbers, and deciding that maybe their lives would be easier if, say, the individual mandate was delayed a year. Do you think there’ll be give in the Democratic ranks on this?

CVH: I don’t. What Republicans are telling their tea party constituents back in their districts is that a one-year delay is the cleanest strategy toward  getting rid of the ACA all together. As you know, the bids have already come in on these health-care exchanges. If you were to delay just the individual mandate, the premiums would jump much higher. That would sabotage the entire purpose of the exchange, which is to provide affordable health care. So I don't see Republicans being successful in that strategy. It just won't happen.

EK: One option you hear discussed is negotiations that the GOP says are over the debt ceiling and Democrats say are over sequestration or jobs or something else.

CVH: The president has all along been willing to negotiate on a jobs plan and on a long-term debt reduction plan. The Republicans have refused to engage on that. If they want to engage on a long-term deficit reduction plan that doesn’t hurt the economy, the president is more than willing to do that. But that requires laying the groundwork. That requires the negotiations. So the answer to your question is that until Republicans are willing to come to the table and make reasonable compromises, its impossible to move forward. Whether you attach that to the debt ceiling as the vehicle or something else is really irrelevant.

EK: Do you think Speaker Boehner has a plan?

CVH: No. I think he’s been scrambling all along. He’s making it up as he goes. We saw that on the continuing resolution. He had a plan. The plan was opposed by his caucus. He wanted to send the Senate a two-part provision where they could vote down the part that would defund the Affordable Care Act, and then the CR could go to the president’s desk without further drama. His caucus vetoed the proposal. They’re just flying by the seat of their pants on the debt ceiling. And so it’s dangerous that they’ve doubled down on Obamacare.

EK: To be blunt, I’m not really hearing a story from you that sounds like a plausible way out of this crisis.

CVH: I don't know the end of this movie. I don't think anybody knows how it ends. And that’s a very dangerous place to be in.

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