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.