Van Hollen’s path from political strategy to budget wonkery

February 3, 2012

Among Republicans on Capitol Hill, Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s appointment to the debt-reduction “supercommittee” seemed like a bad omen. A top lieutenant to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the Maryland Democrat had led his party’s attacks on GOP candidates in 2008 and 2010. So some Republicans were surprised when Van Hollen proved to be a committed negotiator who tried to forge compromise until the supercommittee’s collapse in late November. ¶ “At the end, we couldn’t bridge our differences, but it wasn’t for lack of trying on Chris’s part,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a supercommittee member. “He is a proud liberal, but he is a guy you can work with.”

Aftermaking his name in Congress as a campaign strategist, Van Hollen has morphed over the past year into a bona fide budget expert, representing Democrats in all major negotiations with Republicans and the White House over spending and taxes. From the summer debt-limit debate to the current talks over extending the payroll tax holiday, Van Hollen has been front and center, spouting figures from heavily annotated budget books, trying to conjure the magic formula of spending cuts and tax hikes that could resolve the nation’s biggest budget problems.

Though the rounds of talks failed to produce a far-reaching agreement, they have raised Van Hollen’s profile and enhanced his prospects for a spot in the upper ranks of House leadership — giving Maryland a continued presence at the top table — or the U.S. Senate. Some Maryland Democrats have urged Van Hollen, a former state senator who was well-liked in Annapolis, to make a run to succeed Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) in 2014.

But Van Hollen’s willingness to compromise also carries political risks. Any big debt-reduction deal would almost certainly target federal workers, who make up a significant chunk of Van Hollen’s constituency in suburban Montgomery County. And Van Hollen is continuing to pursue cost-cutting changes to Medicare, proposals that could prove problematic in a House Democratic caucus more inclined to fight with Republicans than to negotiate with them.

“I think that there’s an appetite for problem-solving,” Van Hollen said in an interview. “And I think people are willing to make some tough choices to solve these problems.”

***

Van Hollen, who turned 53 last month, never seemed destined for budget wonkery. Born in Pakistan to an American spy and a future U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka, he has long yearned for the grand canvas of foreign affairs.

But the affable Van Hollen is nothing if not a dues payer. He spent a dozen years in the Maryland legislature before ascending to Washington in 2002, first by beating Del. Mark Shriver, a more glamorous and better-funded Democrat, and then defeating longtime congresswoman Connie Morella (R).

In Congress, Van Hollen soon became a close ally of then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the future White House chief of staff and Chicago mayor, gaining entree into Democratic leadership circles. He eventually succeeded Emanuel as chairman of the Democrats’ campaign arm. Following the successful 2008 campaign season, Van Hollen reluctantly agreed to stay on after Pelosi (Calif.) agreed to give him an enhanced portfolio as one of her top assistants.

In 2010, Democrats lost 63 seats and control of the House, a tea party-fueled bloodbath Van Hollen could not prevent. When House Budget Committee chairman John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.) turned up among the political victims, Van Hollen waged a successful internal campaign to replace him as the committee’s senior Democrat.

With resurgent Republicans vowing to take a hacksaw to government spending, Van Hollen said, “It was pretty clear the budget committee was going to be in the middle of the fight over the proper role of the federal government.”

***

Van Hollen quickly became one of his party’s primary spokesmen on key issues, arguing that the austere spending plan unveiled by Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) would “end the Medicare guarantee” to protect seniors. Later, Pelosi named Van Hollen to represent House Democrats in bipartisan budget talks led by Vice President Biden and on the supercommittee, a panel of 12 lawmakers charged with drafting a plan to reduce borrowing by at least $1.2 trillion over the next decade.

“There were a couple of times along the path here where I actually thought we could get an agreement,” Van Hollen said. “In retrospect I’m not sure that was ever the case.”

In both forums, Van Hollen found himself contemplating politically difficult budget decisions that would affect paychecks and retirement savings for federal workers. And with Republicans demanding cuts to Medicare, Van Hollen developed his own ideas for reform, including managed care for the poorest Medicare recipients.

Republicans say such changes are too timid to fix Medicare’s finances. Many Democrats are also resistant, arguing that agreeing to change the popular program would muddy the Democrats’ political attack against Republicans. But Van Hollen has continued to work on the issue, warning that without significant changes Medicare spending threatens to bankrupt the nation.

“There will be some who will be knee-jerk opposed to any reform, but I think the great majority of our caucus recognizes that we need to modernize Medicare in a way that protects seniors,” he said.

Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), Van Hollen’s successor as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Van Hollen’s knowledge of lawmakers’ districts and reelection concerns raised confidence in his judgment in the budget talks.

“I’m not saying that the politics should drive the policy,” Israel said. “But it’s good to have somebody who understands both.”

***

From here, Van Hollen’s ambitions could take him in one of two directions: House Democratic leadership or the U.S. Senate. Neither course is free of obstacles, nor can Van Hollen know when either chance will come.

“I’m obviously focused on what I’m doing now,” Van Hollen said when asked which he’d prefer. “I don’t want to shut any doors.”

While a host of Maryland Democrats jockey ahead of the 2014 race to succeed O’Malley, Van Hollen is believed to be more interested in one of the state’s two Senate seats, which don’t come open often.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D), 68, is favored to win a second term this year. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D), 75, won’t be up for reelection until 2016 and has given no indication she plans to quit anytime soon.

If a seat becomes available, party officials believe the two likeliest candidates would be Van Hollen and Rep. John Sarbanes, though other elected Democrats — including Reps. Elijah E. Cummings and Donna F. Edwards — could consider making a bid.

A Van Hollen-Sarbanes race would be an expensive and hard-fought affair, pairing two lawmakers with strong political allies and fundraising ability. Sarbanes has a golden name in the state, given the enduring popularity of his father, former senator Paul S. Sarbanes. With a network of Greek-American donors, the younger Sarbanes has been able to build huge campaign war chests despite his safe seat.

But Van Hollen brings assets of his own, including national fundraising ties developed during two cycles at the DCCC and a base in one of the wealthiest House districts in the country. And he has been the underdog before, beating the better-funded Shriver in 2002.

***

A House leadership slot could well come open before a Senate seat does, though the former option is even more fraught with uncertainty.

Pelosi and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) are 71 and 72, respectively, and divining when either will decide to retire depends on several questions. Will Democrats recapture the House in November? Will Pelosi go before Hoyer does? When might rank-and-file members decide they want wholesale change?

Van Hollen is part of a small tier of younger lawmakers expected to make a run at the upper ranks of leadership when the time is right. That group includes Israel, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), the Democratic National Committee chair; and Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), who serves as vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus.

While Wasserman Schultz has built a bigger media profile as DNC chair, none of the other leadership aspirants has been as intimately involved in the policy fights of the 112th Congress as Van Hollen.

“In 10 years I would expect him to be in the . . . Senate, but over the next decade, everyone knows he’s first among equals in terms of leadership status,” Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) said of Van Hollen. “He’s never undermined anybody, he’s never backstabbed anybody.”

Still, some Democrats say privately that Van Hollen is not the kind of politician who inspires passion or strong personal loyalty. He may also have trouble ascending as long as Hoyer remains in place, since lawmakers are likely to be wary of investing too much power in suburban Maryland.

In the near term, Van Hollen is in line for another politically perilous post, chairman of the House Budget Committee, if Democrats take control of the chamber in November.

Is that a job he wants? Van Hollen declined to speculate.

“We’ll just have to see what happens,” he said.

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