Reps. Ryan, Van Hollen form unlikely bond

Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) have spent months launching political broadsides at each other over the year’s most contentious issue: the House Republican budget.

Now, Van Hollen says, they’re trying to get their families together for an outing.

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Ryan and Van Hollen, rising stars in their respective parties, have forged a solid working relationship on the Budget Committee that has withstood the partisan and occasionally personal acrimony surrounding the battle over spending.

Doing so has been a challenge for both men. Ryan, the panel’s chairman, has had to manage a group of feisty conservative freshmen whose denunciations of Van Hollen and other Democrats have at times crossed the lines of decorum. And Van Hollen has had to make the transition from his party’s top attack dog to policy wonk, even as the White House and other Democrats have made Ryan’s blueprint their No. 1 target.

After serving as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) for four years, party leaders moved Van Hollen, 52, to the Budget panel, where they needed an effective messenger to go toe to toe with Ryan.

Ryan said he wasn’t sure whether he’d be able to work with Van Hollen because he didn’t know him that well. The two shared a long dinner at Bistro Bis, a French restaurant on Capitol Hill, where they pledged to try to stifle hostilities on the committee.

“He’s just kind of going through a conversion from being a political guy to being a policy guy,” Ryan said of Van Hollen. “I think he’s done a pretty good job converting over.”

Van Hollen praised Ryan for doing “a very good job of setting the right tone in the committee.”

“We agreed that we would disagree deeply on policy issues, but that we would maintain a good rapport, and we’ve stuck with that, despite some obviously very tense hearings and markups,” Van Hollen said. “I think that sort of spirit of cooperation on the personal level has been preserved.”

Ryan and Van Hollen have also tried, with mixed success, to extend that civility to their rank-and-file members. 

During the emotionally charged floor debate on the budget, a freshman member of the committee, Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.), aggressively attacked Van Hollen. 

“You’re scaring people. You’re scaring people,” Woodall told Van Hollen as he pointed at him. “You should be ashamed. Be ashamed!”

Democrats then raised points of orders accusing Woodall of breaking House rules by criticizing Van Hollen directly, instead of through the presiding officer.

After the exchange, Ryan went over and apologized to Van Hollen, according to sources familiar with the conversation. He told him that some of the new GOP members “get too easily spun up and out of control,” one source said.

Ryan spoke to Woodall as well, and the congressman subsequently apologized to the Maryland Democrat. 

“I did track him down, because I do appreciate the way he handles himself in committee,” Woodall said. He said he told Van Hollen, “That was my newness on the floor.”

Members from both parties said that despite the wide gulf between Ryan and Van Hollen on policy, the Budget Committee has avoided fights over witness lists, amendments and other process matters that are common in other panels. The leaders’ easy rapport was on display at an early June hearing on federal housing policy, when they spent minutes whispering and laughing with each other while a witness was testifying.

Ryan has also praised Van Hollen for offering an alternative Democratic budget over the objections of some in his party.

While Van Hollen and Ryan, 41, are a decade apart in age, they have both served as Congressional staffers, have risen quickly in their parties’ leadership and now have young families. “We’re at a similar stage in life,” Ryan said. He quipped: “We both married way ahead of ourselves.”

Their friendship, while not uncommon for committee leaders, is noteworthy in an era when members say socializing between Republicans and Democrats is more rare.

After four years at the helm of the DCCC, Van Hollen, also a member of Vice President Biden’s debt group, finds himself at the intersection of policy and campaign politics. Democrats have made Ryan’s budget proposal a central campaign issue, and Van Hollen is back in the spotlight as a leading party messenger.

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“It was difficult to project just how politically toxic it was,” Van Hollen said of the Ryan budget. “But I had a pretty good sense that this was going to be a major part of the conversation.”

Republicans, including Ryan, have accused Democrats of demagoguery.

Tensions peaked after President Obama delivered a harsh denunciation of the Ryan budget in a speech at George Washington University, as Ryan sat just a few feet away at the invitation of the White House. Republicans were infuriated, and even some Democrats privately acknowledged the White House had made a mistake in the way it staged the event.

Ryan later confronted Obama about the speech at a White House meeting, criticizing him for suggesting that Republicans did not care about seniors or children.

Van Hollen said he didn’t think Obama’s speech “crossed the line,” but said he has tried to maintain a sharp distinction between criticism of Republicans on policy grounds and questioning their motives.

“I’m willing to go very hard on the policy issues,” he said. “I have no interest in making this a personal issue or engaging in name-calling. I’m not suggesting that any of the others are, but that’s a very clear line that I won’t cross.”

Van Hollen’s transition to a more policy-oriented role, meanwhile, has been smooth.

“He has always been a policy wonk at heart,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), a member of the Budget Committee and now the head of the Democratic National Committee. “He really was quite immersed in policy, and it’s really a passion for him and always has been, even while he was chair of the DCCC.”

And despite the personal collegiality between Van Hollen and Ryan, friendship in politics only goes so far, and there is no sign of a breakthrough on policy. “We disagree with his entire approach, but you can find ways to disagree agreeably,” Van Hollen said of his counterpart.