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Van Hollen Slams ‘Boehner Rule,’ ‘Hastert Rule’ and Eyes Sequester Deal

Two rules that have guided Speaker John A. Boehner’s leadership of the House could go by the wayside this fall when Congress takes up a debt ceiling increase, Rep. Chris Van Hollen predicted Monday.

In a sit-down interview with CQ Roll Call on Monday, the Maryland Democrat and ranking member on the House Budget Committee slammed the “Boehner rule” — which mandates dollar-for-dollar spending cuts for every dollar raised in the debt ceiling — as “unworkable, policy-wise and politically.”

“It gave birth to the sequester,” he added.

And the “Hastert rule,” calling for majority of the majority support for legislation, could be broken as well.

Van Hollen signaled that it had to be “selectively applied,” and he suggested that he didn’t see a scenario wherein Republicans would be able to pass a legitimate debt ceiling increase bill without significant Democratic support.

“What I see happening is that Republicans in the House will unilaterally put together a debt ceiling proposal and attach to it lots of outrageous conditions that will be absolutely unacceptable, and they know it, but that’s the only thing they’ll get the votes for in their caucus,” such as defunding the 2010 health law, Van Hollen said. “And ultimately what that means is, in order to get through this period, you’re going to need support from House Democrats to get something done.”

Neither “rule” is actually a rule, of course. Each is more of a general guideline that Boehner himself has violated from time to time, including a deal earlier this year to punt on the debt ceiling and several bills that required mostly Democratic votes to pass.

Van Hollen did signal that Democrats might accept, as a compromise with the GOP, a “McConnell-like mechanism” that would require the president to propose debt ceiling increases that Congress would then have an opportunity to vote against. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., came up with the concept that was included in the 2011 Budget Control Act.

But in general, Van Hollen spoke on Monday with bold confidence in Democrats’ ability to influence the year-end budget debates. Democrats in both chambers, and in the White House, have said they won’t negotiate with Republicans around the debt limit, and this time they think they have the leverage to stick with that promise.

“I think we have a lot of leverage and it’s because the Republican leadership is incapable of leading its own caucus,” he said. “Put it this way: They are incapable of leading their caucus to any reasonable compromise,” such as one that would pass muster with the Senate and win President Barack Obama’s signature.

There’s also an opening to pass something substantial by way of legislation to fund the government past Sept. 30, when current government spending expires. Van Hollen said Monday that Democrats want to see a full replacement of the sequester — the automatic spending cuts triggered earlier this year. If that can’t be accomplished, Democrats would call for any fiscal 2014 appropriations bill or continuing resolution to include language providing parity between defense and nondefense spending cuts.

But while Van Hollen might talk a tough game, Boehnerland has muscle of its own to flex.

Before departing for the August recess, Boehner told reporters that “sequestration is going to remain in effect until the president agrees to cuts and reforms that will allow us to remove it.”

And on Monday afternoon, Boehner’s spokesman, Kevin Smith, offered a sharp rebuttal to Van Hollen.

“Unless we strengthen and save Medicare and Social Security for today’s seniors and future generations of Americans, these vital programs will go bankrupt,” Smith said. “Putting your head in the sand and wishing it weren’t so, as Democrats continue to do, won’t change this basic fact.

“Republicans’ insistence on the Boehner rule is the only reason Dems came to the table and agreed to cut spending in the first place,” he added.

Earlier Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest declined to lay out the White House’s strategy for dealing with the sequester, pointing instead to dissension within the GOP ranks, given the failure to pass the transportation appropriations bill before the August recess.

“Republicans are struggling to cobble together a strategy that members of their own party support,” he noted.

Pressed, Earnest added, “The president’s not going to sign a budget agreement that undermines important investments that doesn’t act in the best interest of middle-class families in this country.”

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.