By Erik Wasson
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), ranking member of the House Budget Committee, said in a live Sunday appearance on C-Span's Newsmakers program that he is cautiously optimistic that a government shutdown at the end of the week can be avoided.
“I think some of the cooler heads on the Republican side have prevailed, they have decided not to go for an immediate $61 billion in cuts,” he said. “But that doesn't mean we won't be right back here three weeks from now debating these things.”
The cuts identified in the continuing resolution come from eight programs already targeted in Obama's 2012 budget request, and from defunding earmarks. If the House and Senate cannot agree on a new spending bill, the government could shut down after March 4.
Van Hollen said that he is personally “very concerned” however that the GOP bill cuts several education programs and does not reinvest the savings in education as Obama called for in his budget. He also noted that Teach for America may lose funding due to the assault on earmarks.
Because of this Van Hollen and other House Democrats may vote against the CR, he said.
Asked if he thinks Democrats enjoy a tactical advantage and would benefit from a shutdown, as the party did after the shutdown fight of 1995, Van Hollen said Democrats are working strenuously to avoid a shutdown while negotiations continue on funding after the two-week bill runs out. Republicans are seeking much deeper cuts in a six-and-a-half month CR that would be needed after March 18 to fund the government through Sept. 30.
But he said riders in the longer-term CR that create “social policy” such as defunding of Planned Parenthood and Obama's health care reform are non-starters for Democrats. This fact could increase the risk of a shutdown if the GOP sticks to its guns, as former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) urged the party to do in a Washington Post opinion piece on Sunday.
“I think those items which are social engineering under the guise of fiscal policy are going to be unacceptable on the Senate side and certainly the great majority of Democrats voted against those provisions in the House,” Van Hollen said
Van Hollen was asked if Democrats would shut down the government to preserve such funding, but he did not say so directly.
“The Republicans should not be using the budget process to deal with the hot button social issues. If they are serious about fiscal issues let's stick with those, let's have our argument there, don't try and slip these other things in there in the middle of the night.”
Van Hollen said that he believes his caucus has an important role to play in the spending fight and House Republican leaders may look to Democrats to counter the influence of Tea Party-backed freshmen.
He said House Democrats can suggest alternative cuts as a bill is sent to the Senate and when the Senate bill comes back, they may provided crucial votes to a package freshmen simply cannot back.
“On the rebound it may require some Democratic votes, we just don't know what the end of the movie will be,” he said.
Van Hollen was asked about a bipartisan effort in the Senate to put the recommendations of the president's fiscal commission into law. He said that he will meet Monday with one of the six senators involved in the effort, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), to engage in the conversation for the first time.
The Senate plan is still being drafted and at this stage the group envisions requiring Congress to meet certain spending and revenue targets on a set timeline. Van Hollen said that he is concerned that the senators will propose lowering individual tax rates to a set level without first specifying which tax breaks Congress should eliminate to pay for that.
The fiscal commission proposed eliminating tax earmarks in order to lower the rates and would use some of the new revenue for debt reduction.
So far the bipartisan debt effort has solely been taking place in the Senate, but Van Hollen wants to get involved especially once the issue of the temporary spending bill is resolved.
He said that entitlements need to be tackled, but it is not yet clear what Republicans plan to put on the table in their 2012 budget proposal.
He agreed that the budget process is in need of reform and said that this week he will be introducing an enhanced rescission bill.
This bill, called line item veto light by some, would allow the president to send Congress a bill rescinding wasteful spending he identifies in appropriations legislation quickly after it becomes law. Congress would have to schedule and up or down vote on the rescission package, and Van Hollen's bill will require any savings be put in a “lockbox” for deficit reduction.