Bailout Issue Is Now a Bull's-Eye

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) has served in the House for three terms.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) has served in the House for three terms. (Susan Walsh - AP)
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By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 2008

When the House voted down the first draft of a historic $700 billion financial rescue plan last month, Rep. Chris Van Hollen was a constant presence at news conferences on Capitol Hill and on national television, making the case that the legislation was imperfect but necessary.

As the head of the Democrats' House campaigns nationwide, Van Hollen was also a guidepost on the tricky issue for freshman lawmakers locked in tough reelection battles. But as Van Hollen seeks reelection to a fourth term in Maryland's heavily Democratic 8th District, his opponents -- Republican Steven J. Hudson and Green Party candidate Gordon Clark -- are trying to turn his leadership status into a vulnerability.

Van Hollen has won with more than 70 percent of the vote in his past two elections, after first defeating the popular incumbent Republican Constance A. Morella in 2002 in a district that includes much of Montgomery County and a swath of Prince George's County.

Even as he works as chief recruiter and fundraiser for House Democrats, Van Hollen has stayed involved in local issues. He has fought against the potential relocation of thousands of federal jobs from Rockville and worked with a bipartisan group of regional leaders, including Republican Rep. Tom Davis (Va.) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), to provide $1.5 billion in federal funding over 10 years for the aging Metro system.

But Van Hollen, 49, gave Hudson and Clark an opening this month when he missed the League of Women Voters debate, the only one scheduled since February's primary. The event coincided with an emergency meeting of the House Democratic caucus on the eve of the pivotal bailout vote.

"I think my constituents would seriously have questioned my judgment if I did not participate in what was the critical debate on the economic crisis facing our country," Van Hollen said.

Clark, a former field director for Public Citizen's Congress Watch and the former national executive director of Peace Action, is running to the left of Van Hollen. Hudson, a surgeon and lawyer, is running to the right. Both of his opponents, who have not held elected office, said they would have voted against the bailout and questioned how Congress -- and Van Hollen -- could be trusted to regulate the industries it taps for campaign cash.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tapped Van Hollen as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006. The DCCC has a 4 to 1 fundraising advantage over its Republican counterpart and this year won three House seats in special elections. Van Hollen said the largest increase in fundraising has come from people making small donations online.

Before the Rockville debate, Clark, 48, took issue with Van Hollen's support for the financial rescue plan, which Clark called "horrible," and for allowing a ban on offshore drilling to expire.

"He's spending an awful lot of his time raising money from wealthy donors. I have to wonder if he still represents this district," Clark said. "Those aren't liberal or progressive positions."

Van Hollen said he and House Democratic leaders allowed the drilling ban to expire because President Bush had threatened to veto a major spending bill if it included a drilling provision. He said he supported an alternative backed by some environmental groups, which would have permitted more limited drilling, but the measure did not gain traction.

In a district where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 3 to 1, GOP candidate Hudson, 39, has urged voters to look beyond the candidates' party affiliation. "I'm about people, not party. I'm a centrist," he said.

On health care, Clark backs a single-payer system, a form of universal coverage in which the government foots the bill for the private industry to provide health-care services. Van Hollen supports universal coverage but is curious about how a single-payer system would be funded. Hudson favors providing tax credits based on income to allow people to purchase private insurance as part of a free-market system.

While Clark and Hudson debated this month, Van Hollen was huddled in the basement of the Capitol with House Democrats who would vote on the final version of the financial rescue package the next day. Van Hollen had been meeting daily with Democratic leaders, a core group of about eight lawmakers, to put together a plan that would ensure additional protections for taxpayers and limit executive compensation.

Van Hollen said in remarks delivered on the House floor that he "reluctantly" backed the bailout "not because I think responsible taxpayers have any obligation to bail out Wall Street. They don't."

But, he said, "I believe that acting decisively now will almost certainly mean less cost to taxpayers and less pain on Main Street than allowing this credit crisis to get worse."

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