WASHINGTON, DC — The House Democrats’ lead budget negotiator has little formal clout under a wide Republican majority, but with a high profile and the enthusiastic backing of his party, Rep. Chris Van Hollen has a clear strategy on the eve of high-stakes budget talks: to call House Republicans' bluff.
As the sides posture around early talks to forestall the “fiscal cliff” of mandatory spending cuts, Van Hollen, 53, dismisses Republicans’ hard-line stance that revenue can come solely from entitlement reforms and closing loopholes.
“The question will be, how long will it take for House Republicans to recognize that revenue has to be part of a balanced approach to a solution?” Van Hollen said. “Will they recognize that during the lame duck session? Will they recognize it in the first week of January? Will they recognize it by the end of January? Will they recognize it by the end of February?”
“I just think that at some point, their position is politically unsustainable,” he added.
When Congress returns to Washington this month to commence its high-stakes fiscal-cliff discussions, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee will reprise a role he mastered during the debt-ceiling debate last year: that of the House Democrats’ chief budget negotiator and communicator.
Meanwhile, the debate could act as a convenient, if particularly chaotic, segue into Van Hollen’s next career step — whatever that might be.
In the near term, Van Hollen is focused on the tricky deficit-reduction negotiations that lie ahead: Congress will need to reach an agreement prior to Jan. 1 to splice the federal deficit and address a host of expiring tax provisions. Were a deal not struck and the automatic measures allowed to take effect, the Congressional Budget Office has predicted the country would be thrown into another recession.
Van Hollen predicts that Congress will not devise a long-term plan for deficit reduction or reform the tax code in any meaningful way by the end of the year.
“It’s hard to see how you could negotiate a comprehensive agreement that deals with all the issues in the lame duck session,” he said in an interview last week with BuzzFeed.
But he nevertheless sees the opportunity to erect the framework for ongoing discussions and to reach bipartisan consensus about the ratio of spending cuts to revenue.
“There are two approaches to this discussion,” Van Hollen said. “One approach is, you begin by discussing the furniture before you’ve designed the room. My view is that you should figure out what the design of the room is, or the design of the house. Let’s design the house before we decide what color the furniture should be.”
Most lawmakers have agreed that the sequester, $110 billion in automatic cuts to defense spending, will be addressed in some form by the year’s end; Van Hollen has suggested that lawmakers might approve $55 billion in cuts during the lame duck session, allowing for six more months to brainstorm the remaining $55 billion in cuts.
The most difficult negotiations are expected to center on sources of revenue, and on tax cuts in particular. Republicans have argued that sufficient revenue can be drawn from reforms to entitlement programs such as Medicare and by closing tax loopholes; meanwhile, Democrats contend that some tax cuts must be allowed to expire.
Specifically, Democrats, Van Hollen among them, are pushing for the tax cut on income exceeding $250,000 to expire.
Van Hollen will not be entering these negotiations as a novice. During the debt-ceiling talks last year, Van Hollen established himself as one of House Democrats’ chief negotiators; he participated in Vice President Joe Biden’s debt talks with members of Congress, and he sat on the Congressional super committee.
"People see him as a partisan and a devotee to his caucus and party, but there’s also room for negotiation," said one consultant with ties to the Democratic House leadership. "It’s pretty clear that the caucus is showing him deference on this, and he’ll take it."
"He’s a tactician," the consultant added. "He’s no dummy, and people know that."
Across the aisle, House Speaker John Boehner has already begun to exert pressure on the rank-and-file members of his party to defer to Republican leadership on the fiscal cliff, in contrast to the rebellion staged by the conservative contingent of the party during the debt-ceiling debate last year.
In Van Hollen’s mind, that’s an encouraging sign — if the Republican Party’s conservative wing is successfully held at bay.
“There seem to be people like John Boehner who at least are willing to contemplate a balanced approach, but by all accounts have been totally debauched from doing it by the rest of his leadership and the Tea Party caucus,” Van Hollen said. “Whether that changes or not, I don’t know.”
Although House Democrats are out of power, the Republican majority has been diminished to just 18 votes — meaning Boehner will likely need Democratic support on any final fiscal-cliff deal, as well as other major legislation he pursues during the next two years. That dynamic will leave House Democrats, including Van Hollen, with considerable influence on negotiations.
Nevertheless, Van Hollen underscored repeatedly in the interview that House Republicans will "hold the key" to the coming deficit-reduction talks — among them, Van Hollen’s Republican counterpart on the House Budget Committee, Rep. Paul Ryan.
“Paul Ryan really has a fundamental decision to make: Is he going to be part of a solution, or is he going to carry the ideological flag for the House Tea Party caucus?” Van Hollen said. “Paul and I get along very well personally, but it’s important not to mistake congeniality for a willingness to compromise.”
Indeed, Van Hollen and Ryan have become well-known for their congenial interactions on the House Budget Committee, even as they’ve embraced their roles as foils and butted heads over policy matters: Van Hollen, for his part, is largely responsible for making Ryan’s budget infamous — and vilified — as a Democratic talking point.
Van Hollen and Ryan have been able to remain friendly in spite of their policy disagreements in part, perhaps, because they have much in common.
Just as Ryan began his career as a staffer on Capitol Hill, so, too, did Van Hollen, who worked as a legislative assistant to Maryland Sen. Charles Mathias, a Republican, and as a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
But Van Hollen’s path to politics has been less analogous to Ryan’s, perhaps, than it has been to that of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s.
Pelosi, to whom Van Hollen has become very close during his time in Congress, is, like Van Hollen, from Maryland, where her father, Tommy D'Alesandro Jr., served as the mayor of Baltimore and a congressman.
Van Hollen, too, comes from a family committed to public service: His father served as an ambassador to Sri Lanka; his mother, for the State Department. Van Hollen himself was born abroad, in Karachi, Pakistan, and grew up in Turkey and India.
“Like Pelosi, who they are and what they do comes a little more naturally,” said another Democratic operative who knows Van Hollen. “Some people come to Washington never having served. ... It’s a different kind of training having grown up in an environment of service.”
“He’s lived it, he’s breathed it. It’s all he’s ever known.”
Aside from a stint as a lawyer, Van Hollen has only held or pursued jobs in government. Following his early positions as a political staffer, Van Hollen won his first seat in the Maryland House of Delegates in 1990, and he has served as an elected official since.
At two points in his career, Van Hollen made the risky political decision to take on established incumbents: first, for the State Senate against an early mentor, Patricia Sher, a Democrat, in 1994; then, versus Rep. Connie Morella, a Republican, for his current seat in Congress, in 2000. Both times, Van Hollen won.
These victories have played into a reputation that has snowballed since Van Hollen arrived on Capitol Hill as an elected official. He has come to be regarded as outstandingly ambitious and is unfailingly described as such by admirers and detractors alike — even in Washington, a town with such a high proportion of type A personalities per capita that ambition tends to go unnoticed, or unnoted.
His allies, at least, expect him to continue his climb.
“He is so talented and versatile that I could see Van Hollen doing everything from a top leadership position to senator one day, or serving in an important role in the Obama administration — like OMB head, or even chief of staff at some point,” said one Democratic strategist with ties to Van Hollen.
Depending upon what Pelosi decides her future will hold, that point could be now. The House minority leader plans to announce tomorrow whether she will stay on for another term; if she does not, her departure would initiate a shuffle within the Democratic caucus leadership.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, the minority whip who, like Van Hollen, hails from Maryland, is widely expected to make a bid for Pelosi's slot should she step aside, and many Democrats consider it unlikely that Van Hollen would launch a counteroffensive.
For his part, Van Hollen told BuzzFeed he will not be making any decisions until the minority leader makes her own — but he is leaving his options open.
"I think it's really important that we have leaders who are open to compromise but recognize the important principles at stake," Van Hollen said. "That's the best I can do right now. Let's just see what — because we don't know what decisions others will be making."
Were Van Hollen to become White House chief of staff, as some of his associates have suggested could be another option, he would be following once more in the footsteps of one of his early mentors in Congress: Rahm Emanuel, whom Van Hollen succeeded as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, after Emanuel tapped Van Hollen to head recruitment efforts for the committee.
But after a successful first term helming the DCCC, Van Hollen took on a second term — during the 2010 midterm election, which saw Democrats lose control of the House in a historic wave election. Van Hollen, whom close associates describe as studious, hardworking and even-keeled, was hardly fazed outwardly — but, as someone who places a premium on success, those who know him say he was likely deeply disappointed.
“When you put your heart and soul into something — I’m sure it had an impact on him,” the Democratic strategist said of the election outcome and its effect on Van Hollen. “He never showed it, though. He didn’t have his head in his hands, like, ‘Woe is me.’ His reaction was, ‘We need to start thinking about how we climb back up the hill.’”
“You’re always going to have failures in politics,” the strategist added. “Chris Van Hollen has had very few.”
It was that defeat, in part, that led Van Hollen to accept the top Democratic slot on the House Budget Committee — where, associates say, Van Hollen identified an opportunity for Democrats to rebound by taking on Ryan’s budget proposal.
Jon Vogel, who worked as the executive director of the DCCC in 2010, recalled of Van Hollen, "He always told me, 'There are things you can't control and things you can control. In any situation, you should always focus on the things you can control.'"
In the coming weeks and months, Van Hollen will likely approach his role in the fiscal-cliff negotiations, and his larger personal aspirations, in just that way.
It’s not a far leap from 2003, the year that saw Van Hollen first arrive on Capitol Hill as an elected official and a member of the minority, and when The New Republic chronicled his then-futile in-the-trenches quest for influence.
The piece detailed his earnest, eager disposition — embodied in a black binder Van Hollen toted with him to every meeting, where he was inevitably ignored by those lawmakers in the Republican majority.
"You sort of know academically what it's like to live in the minority," he was quoted as saying in the article. "But it's another thing to live it."
Nearly one decade later, on the morning of our interview, Van Hollen, once again in the minority, but no longer quite so powerless, walked out of the Longworth House Office Building — bound for Maryland, a black binder in hand.