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Van Hollen: Weds Politics and Policy

As Assistant to the Speaker and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, there’s not much in the House that Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) doesn’t leave his fingerprints on these days ­— and the recent health care bill is no exception.

Now in his second cycle as DCCC chief, the Maryland Democrat must ensure that all of the freshmen he helped elect last cycle win again in the upcoming midterm elections. And with Republicans expected to gain seats next November, Van Hollen has his work cut out for him — especially as he tries to prop up Members in tough re-election races who voted for the bill.

Out of the 219 Democrats who voted for the health care reform package, 18 represent districts that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won last November. Some are seasoned Members such as Reps. John Murtha (Pa.) and Marion Berry (Ark.), who have long records to rely on, but others are the freshmen Van Hollen helped elect to Congress last year, such as Reps. Kathy Dahlkemper (Pa.) and Tom Perriello (Va.).

Van Hollen must also keep an eye out for new Members who have attracted strong challengers in marginally Democratic districts, such as Reps. Mary Jo Kilroy (Ohio), Carol Shea-Porter (N.H.) and Steve Driehaus (Ohio). Those three Democrats and several others looking at tough re-election battles also voted for the health care bill.

Aides say that in his official role as Assistant to the Speaker, Van Hollen served as a sounding board for many of these freshman Democrats during the health care debate. After Members returned from August recess, many freshmen talked with Van Hollen about policy ideas that they picked up back in their districts.

Dahlkemper, for example, reportedly offered the proposal that young Americans could stay on their parents’ health care plan until age 27. The freshman Democrat voted for the final House bill, which included such a provision.

“At the end of the day, I think he played a very important role in making it a comfortable vote for those Members who wanted to support the bill,— one senior Democratic aide said. “By listening to their concerns in September and working within the leadership to address them, he helped a number of folks cross the finish line.—

But perhaps Van Hollen’s most tangible contribution came in the form of Congress’ freshest face: newly elected Rep. Bill Owens (N.Y.). As head of the DCCC, Van Hollen oversaw Owens’ Nov. 3 special election victory — one more “yay— vote in a slim five-vote margin.

Going forward, it will be Van Hollen who will help synthesize the Democratic message on health care reform out on the campaign trail. He is, by most accounts, a smart, tough and articulate messenger who is always quick to list all the promises Democrats have made and kept.

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