Van Hollen warns of ‘dangerous waters’

Rep. Chris Van Hollen is seeking both to calm and unify his party as it enters what he calls “dangerous waters ahead.”

With healthcare reform now  law, Democratic leaders are shifting into a new phase, reassuring and advising nervous members who have huge targets on their backs.

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Perhaps nobody is as important in that effort as Van Hollen, who serves a dual role as both assistant to the Speaker and second-term chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

In an interview with The Hill hours before members returned home to face their constituents for a two-week recess, Van Hollen said he won’t play favorites this fall.

The Maryland Democrat said, “The DCCC will treat all endangered incumbents the same,” regardless of how they voted on the historic healthcare bill.

In the immense struggle to get 216 votes, tempers flared at times in the House Democratic Caucus. And in the aftermath of the close vote, there is still some lingering bitterness among liberal activists and in the White House about the 34 Democratic “no”  votes.

Van Hollen wants to bury that bitterness. He said he is encouraging the White House to treat all Democratic vulnerables the same. The time for intraparty bickering, Van Hollen suggests, is over.

“These are members who may have voted no on this bill, but they have voted yes on other bills,” he said. “We can have disagreements, we can weather the storm of these sorts of family battles and move on.”

Part of Van Hollen’s job is not to get too high or too low. While many Democrats, including White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, were making bold predictions about the midterms soon after the 2008 election, Van Hollen urged caution.

“I’ve been pretty consistent,” Van Hollen said, “We were all celebrating [in 2008], but at that time, I did make it very clear to our colleagues that history suggests that there are dangerous waters ahead.”

Legislators who voted for health reform now face having to explain the bill to constituents over the Easter/Passover recess. Those who didn’t toe the party line are now facing, in several instances, potential primary challenges.

The DCCC chief is clearly worried about primary challenges that could lead to GOP victories this fall. Swing-district Democrats like Reps. Bart Stupak (Mich.), Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (S.D.) and John Barrow (Ga.) have found themselves targeted by the left.

“It’s counter-productive if the result of a primary is for the Democrat to lose the seat in the general election, which could easily happen in many of these swing districts,” Van Hollen said. “So that’s why we’re very focused on that.”

Van Hollen, a member of the Ways and Means Committee, said Democrats will tackle Wall Street reform next and campaign finance reform later.

Immigration reform, a politically thorny issue, will have to move in the Senate first if it is going to be passed in the 111th Congress, Van Hollen stressed.

Despite the partisan roadblocks ahead, Van Hollen predicts campaign finance reform will be signed into law this year. Soon after the Supreme Court ruling on the Citizens United case allowing increased corporate spending on elections, Van Hollen teamed up with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to craft a legislative response. Their bill will be unveiled in April.

With Obama pushing the measure, Van Hollen asserts that it can attract at least one GOP vote in the Senate.

“If you look at polling, whether you’re a Republican, Independent or Democrat, there is strong support for vetting this kind of big corporate money dumped into these elections,” he said.

With his two leadership roles, Van Hollen found himself in an unusual position on the healthcare bill. Noting Democrats had to show they can govern, Van Hollen worked hard to pass the bill, but also understood more than most Democrats why some of his colleagues opposed it.

“I’ve made it clear many times that I’m not the whip,” he said with a laugh.

In the interview, Van Hollen was eager to go over the list of Republican candidates who have signed on to the Club for Growth’s pledge to repeal the healthcare law.

“I think the cooler heads on the Republican side are going to say: ‘Oh, I don’t know about this repeal bill; we really don’t mean that,’” he said.

He described the Democratic approach as more of a long-term strategy, but also said he plans on showing voters the dividends this year as well.

“[Voters are] also going to see that all the doomsday scenarios that the opposition talked about just didn’t come true,” Van Hollen said. “Mr. Boehner talked about Armageddon; the bill was signed by the president a few days ago; the world is still here.”

Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the polling tells a different story.  “Middle-class Americans don’t like this bill and they see the negative impact it is already having on our economy,” Spain said. “Democrats can spin it all they want, but they know deep down that they are going to pay a steep political cost for ignoring the will of the voters come November.”

Democrats have signaled that they will fight back on the bill by painting Republicans as favoring the status quo and siding with insurance companies.

They say the widespread GOP support for the idea of repealing the bill plays into that narrative.

Van Hollen said that like they did in 2006 with their “Six in ’06” campaign pledge, Democrats will offer a specific electoral message this year.

 “I think we will spell out not only the changes that have been made, but the way forward, the additional reforms that we want to make going forward,” Van Hollen said.

That platform currently revolves around the idea that Democrats are “the party of reform” while Republicans “want to turn back the clock.”

Van Hollen shies away from putting numbers on Democratic losses or over-selling things. He said the cycle isn’t a repeat of 1994, when Republicans retook Congress in the first midterm under a new Democratic president. But he did say it remains an uphill climb for his party — mostly because it gained 55 seats in largely red territory in the last two cycles.

Whatever happens, it will be Van Hollen’s swan song as DCCC chairman. After being persuaded to stay for another term and gaining a role as Assistant to the Speaker, Van Hollen assures that this is his last go-around, no matter what Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) says this time.

“I’m not doing a third term. [Pelosi] knows that,” he said. “Even though she has very, very large persuasive powers, I think this is the end of it.”

The assistant to the Speaker role is a permanent position, though many in the House contend Van Hollen has his sights set higher.

Van Hollen, 51, didn’t bite at a question about next year, though, saying only: “I have no idea … I’ve got enough to worry about right now.”

On the 2010 election and healthcare bill’s effect on November:

“For us it is an uphill climb and the question is the steepness of the hill. And certainly, passage of the healthcare reform bill makes that climb a little less steep, because people are going to begin to see the benefits of that legislation.”

On potential retribution against Democrats who voted no:

“The DCCC will treat all endangered incumbents the same. Our job is to make sure that we elect Democrats. These are members who may have voted no on this bill, but they have voted yes on other bills. … In my conversations with the White House, they were going to be treating everybody the same.”

On primaries against his incumbents:

“The danger in these congressional districts is that, if the incumbent loses the primary, the Democrats lose the seat in the general. We do not want to do to Democrats in those seats what the Republican Party, through organizations like the Club for Growth, has done to itself, which is forming circular firing squads.”

On extending the expiring Bush tax cuts:

“We will extend those tax cuts that benefit middle-class America. … I think that would more likely be done before [the election].”

Onthe upcoming campaign finance reform bill:

“If you believe that having a major corporation or foreign-controlled corporation pump a lot of money into U.S. elections — if you think that is a good thing — then I guess you won’t like the bill. But otherwise, you will.”

On the perception that he and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), two well-known campaign strategists, are leading the effort to revise campaign finance law:

“I was the person who carried the torch on the bundling disclosure provisions [in the ethics reform bill]. I have the bruises to show it. I have a long record in the area of campaign finance reform, both here and in the State Legislature.”

On member dues to the DCCC:

“We will call upon all our members to fulfill their responsibilities to the DCCC … for members who do not face tough elections, they will be paying their dues.”

On Sarah Palin campaigning for Republican House candidates:

“We will send her an invitation to campaign in every one of the congressional districts that is on her list.”

Video of The Hill’s interview with Van Hollen can be seen on thehill.com