For Rep. Chris Van Hollen, brokering a bipartisan deal to trim the federal deficit is about more than dodging draconian across-the-board cuts or protecting a fragile economic recovery.
It's also about proving that a bitterly divided Congress can still get something done.
As a member of the congressional "supercommittee" charged with slashing U.S. budget deficits by $1.2 trillion, the Montgomery County Democrat is again at the center of the most pressing question facing Washington: how to balance spending cuts, taxes and the increasingly partisan politics of Capitol Hill.
The outcome will have significant implications for the economy, particularly in Maryland.
"I hope that … we're able to reach an agreement to show that we can get something done for the good of the country," Van Hollen said in an interview. "But that requires that there be a negotiating partner that's willing to enter into a balanced and fair deal."
Pessimism that the 12-member Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction will finish its work by the Nov. 23 deadline is high. Democrats on the panel insist that new taxes are needed to plug part of the nation's fiscal gap. Republicans, who won control of the House of Representatives last year on a pledge of fiscal responsibility, are resisting new taxes.
The panel was formed as part of an agreement in August to raise the nation's debt ceiling and avoid a default of U.S. obligations. Six Democrats and six Republicans have been meeting since September, nearly always behind closed doors. The secrecy has prompted widespread speculation about what, if anything, the group has accomplished so far.
"The supercommittee is still working pretty hard toward trying to get an agreement on a big deal" in excess of their $1.2 trillion mandate, said Jason Peuquet, a policy analyst with the Washington-based Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
But does he think it will succeed?
"It's really just anyone's guess," he said.
If the panel deadlocks or Congress does not approve its recommendations by the end of the year, automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion would be triggered. About half of those reductions would hit defense spending and the other half could fall on Medicare, medical research, transportation and other government services.
The cuts would be especially painful in Maryland, home to 286,810 federal workers, a bevy of military installations and about $27 billion in annual federal contracts.
"If we were unable to reach an agreement, then you'd see these across-the-board cuts take place, which would mean significant reductions in the everyday operations of the federal government," said Van Hollen, 52. "It could have an even bigger impact on Maryland, Virginia and Washington."
But taking no action on the nation's deficit is not an option. If the cost of Medicare remains on its current trajectory and Congress extends income tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush, U.S. debt would grow to 87 percent of the economy by 2020, up from 62 percent this year, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Because he represents a Montgomery County district with a high concentration of federal employees, Van Hollen has had to walk a particularly fine line in deficit-reduction talks. Some Republicans have called for cutting the federal workforce, reducing pay or trimming pensions.
Federal workers are already operating under a two-year pay freeze that began this year.
Van Hollen says he believes federal employees are "willing to do their share" as long as cuts are made in a "fair and equitable way." Though he declines to talk specifics, he promised to "fight any effort to single out federal employees."
Whatever cuts to federal workers he could ultimately support, Van Hollen appears to have the trust of public employee unions. John Gage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, called Van Hollen a "spokesperson for sanity."
Van Hollen has also earned the respect of many Republicans. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has praised Van Hollen's diplomatic style, if not his policies.
A rising star in Democratic politics, Van Hollen spent the 2008 and 2010 elections as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which provides money and advice to the party's House candidates. The job put him in a position to help elect many of his colleagues in Congress.
When Republicans captured the House in the 2010 midterm election, Van Hollen — a close ally of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi — secured the top Democratic spot on the House Budget Committee. Since then, he has become a leading spokesman for his party on taxes and deficits at a time when those two issues have dominated Washington's agenda.
Van Hollen is one of just four lawmakers to have served on both the supercommittee and a debt commission led by Vice President Joe Biden last spring, a panel that ultimately collapsed when the conversation turned to taxes and Republicans walked away.
The five-term congressman said the two committees took vastly different approaches. The Biden-led group quickly delved into the budget in search of cuts and held off on considering revenues until the end — when it was too late. By contrast, the supercommittee has taken a broader view, weighing cuts and taxes together from the start.
"The approach that we're taking during this joint committee is to try to put the framework in place first," Van Hollen said. "Instead of opening your binder and looking at one small program that you might want to cut, you begin the conversation by saying, 'OK, how much of our deficit-reduction challenge do we want to tackle through a variety of cuts … and how much do we want to do through revenues?'"
For Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland, part of the freshman class of Republicans who swept into power in last year's election, the answer to that question is simple: Raising taxes in a down economy is a bad idea.
"There is almost no way you're going to pass a tax rate increase through the House," the Baltimore County lawmaker said. "If, on the other hand, they did some true tax reform … I think people would be amenable to that."
Asked about Van Hollen's role on the committee, Harris said, "He's really given no indication that he's going to stray from the party line."
Van Hollen arrived in Congress in 2003 after beating Kennedy family member Mark Shriver in a primary and an incumbent Republican, Rep. Constance A. Morella, in the general election.
Born in Karachi, Pakistan, to a U.S. Foreign Service officer and a State Department intelligence analyst, Van Hollen studied at Swarthmore, Harvard and Georgetown. He worked for Republican Sen. Charles McC. Mathias and Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer. He was elected to one term in the state House of Delegates and two in the state Senate.
His high-profile work on the supercommittee comes as public approval of Congress is at an all-time low. A New York Times-CBS News opinion poll last month found that only 9 percent of Americans approve of the way Congress is doing its job. President Barack Obama is railing against the "do-nothing Congress" as he campaigns for re-election.
And that skepticism extends to the supercommittee. Nearly seven in 10 voters believe the panel will fail, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll. The survey found that 46 percent of American voters would blame the GOP for failure, compared with 36 percent who would point to Obama.
Asked whether he is more or less optimistic for a breakthrough than when the committee began its work, Van Hollen offered little in the way of reassurance last week.
"We'll have to see," he said. "The clock is ticking."
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