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Van Hollen Tests Power of Position

In the runup to the first House budget vote, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was perplexed. The Democratic whip count showed that a handful of vulnerable lawmakers were planning to peel off and vote against the spending blueprint — a critical early test of strength for the party.

Pelosi asked her deputies what was going on, sources close to the situation said, and word came back that Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the party’s campaign chief, had given exposed Democrats a pass on the measure.

Pelosi talked to Van Hollen and then worked to limit Democratic defections, securing for the White House the biggest margin of victory in more than a decade on the always-tough budget vote.

Such conflicts were not uncommon in the previous Congress between the Speaker and Rahm Emanuel, former Caucus chairman and Van Hollen’s notoriously short-fused predecessor at the helm of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But Van Hollen is a much more unlikely contrarian. Bookish and measured where Emanuel was brash and foul-mouthed, Van Hollen is nevertheless hustling these days to prove himself a worthy successor to the Chicagoan who is credited with delivering House Democrats back to the majority.

As the appointed defender of marginal Democrats, that means speaking out for positions sometimes at odds with both his own more liberal beliefs and his loyal-lieutenant status as Assistant to the Speaker.

The results have made for some awkward moments.

Van Hollen had a difficult balancing act on the budget — how to protect vulnerable 2010 lawmakers while also seeking to build support for the party’s agenda.

On the budget, Van Hollen held Members-only forums educating freshmen and sophomores and distributed materials on how to sell the vote back home, according to a leadership aide.

But he also understood that the vote was a difficult one politically in many districts.

“Van Hollen never told anyone to vote no,— a Democratic leadership aide said. “What he’s told them is, You’ve got to vote your district. You need to put your districts first.’—

Most recently, Van Hollen got himself in hot water for publicly appearing to diminish the prospects of a sweeping climate change bill — a politically treacherous undertaking that Pelosi views as her legacy project. After media reports earlier this month presented Van Hollen as opposing aggressive action on the measure unless the Senate demonstrates it could move a bill, Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) heatedly challenged him on his remarks in a closed-door leadership meeting. The 50-year-old Marylander stood behind his assertion that vulnerable lawmakers should not have to cast a difficult vote if the Senate outlook remains dim, sources said.

Van Hollen’s exertions — and the more workaday efforts of his leadership team coaching junior Members — have earned him high marks from new lawmakers. “I couldn’t be more impressed with what Van Hollen is doing,— one aide said. “He and Rahm have very different styles, but they’re both very effective.—

Other lawmakers who eye cap-and-trade legislation warily also have cheered Van Hollen’s latest moves.

“Chris has the day in and day out responsibility of preserving this majority and the knowledge this majority was built with conservative Democrats in districts that voted for George Bush in many cases,— Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) said.

Davis said that Van Hollen’s concern about forcing a vote on potentially imperiled Members makes eminent sense.

“There are too many serious things for us to do to be making symbolic statements,— he said.

“What he’s doing is his job, which is to make sure we know if there are political pitfalls out there,— added Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), sponsor of a bipartisan energy package that omits cap-and-trade.

But while Van Hollen is trying to fill the Emanuel void, he still has not yet won over all moderates, who are historically more comfortable with his fellow Marylander, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.

After Emanuel left to be President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Van Hollen successfully took on the new Member services portfolio in the leadership shuffle that ensued.

But rather than entrust Van Hollen entirely with the task, the business-friendly New Democrats have stepped up their own efforts at helping those junior lawmakers along.

The group has tapped Rep. Jason Altmire (Pa.), a sophomore in a tough district, to help the newest New Democrats in various ways, including finding openings to put their stamps on legislation, launching a new mentoring effort that pairs senior members of the group with freshmen and formalizing the group’s K Street network to round up extra campaign cash for those facing difficult re-elections. For the fundraising piece, Altmire helped organize about 40 Democratic lobbyists into a new collective called the Keystone Group in which participants have agreed to give personal money at semi-regular breakfasts he is hosting for vulnerable coalition members.

“You look at Rahm and you look at Chris, and they’re different people with different politics,— Altmire said, acknowledging that some Democrats are asking, “Is Chris going to be able to fill the same role?—

But he said his effort is not meant as a substitute for Van Hollen’s. “It’s not filling a void,— he said.

Likewise, Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.), who is in line to chair the New Democrats, said, “Whether the DCCC was doing this or not, we’d be doing this to help our Members.—

But other sources close to the coalition said skepticism persists about Van Hollen’s ability to articulate the moderate viewpoint to leadership with Emanuel’s effectiveness. “There’s still a sense that he’s an arm of the Speaker, and we recognized without Rahm there, there would be more of a need— to look out for their own, one said.

Fiscally conservative Blue Dogs, meanwhile, say they have always had programs for vulnerable lawmakers and praised Van Hollen as helpful.

Van Hollen cheered Blue Dogs recently when he publicly took a swipe at liberal groups targeting conservative Democrats with ads on the budget, warning against a Democratic circular firing squad.

“It’s been good to have him in our corner,— one Blue Dog aide said.

Van Hollen’s camp sees the parallel efforts to help freshmen as complementary, not competitive, especially given that the party has a larger group of freshmen and sophomores than it did last year. They also argue that Van Hollen has shored up support over the last four months by sticking up for vulnerable Members.

“Initially there may have been some suspicion, but people have looked at how Van Hollen has stood up for them in leadership meetings and elsewhere,— a leadership aide said. “Van Hollen is in the business of seeing these people get re-elected, and anything he sees getting in the way of that, he’ll speak out.—

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