Chris Van Hollen's Soft Landing

Chris Van Hollen, the polite, courtly representative of Maryland's suburbs just north of D.C., was on the verge of losing his promising status in the Democratic ranks.

Viewed by members of the party as an up-and-comer, the 51-year-old Van Hollen led his party's House campaign efforts over the past two election cycles. As is patently obvious, things didn't turn out so well this year. And this left him in an uncertain position, even as his four terms in the House of Representatives had, thus far, signaled nothing but upward mobility.

Van Hollen decided that, after two cycles at the helm of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, enough was enough. He was interested in joining the Democratic leadership, but, as Democrats lost their majority in the House of Representatives, with it they lost a slot in the hierarchy: With no Speaker of the House, the Democratic leadership shrank, and everyone would be forced to take one step down the ladder. James Clyburn and Steny Hoyer engaged in a race for whip. The fates of several Democratic congressional leaders looked uncertain.

Things were crowded at the top, and it appeared that Van Hollen could be pushed aside, despite being an ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and despite having ascended impressively to the DCCC role in 2007, after just two terms in the House.

Fortuitously, however, Van Hollen has landed: He will serve as the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, a position that will carry added importance in the next Congress.

Van Hollen won the job this past Wednesday, as Democrats voted on their caucus leaders for next year. He was the only committee leader to be decided that day, along with Pelosi, Hoyer, Clyburn, Caucus Chairman John Larson, and Vice Chair Xavier Becerra--the rest of the committee slots will be filled after Thanksgiving--and was included, in the voting schedule and in the post-vote announcements, as part of the leadership club. Van Hollen won the position with a unanimous vote of the incoming Democratic caucus. He had not sat on the committee during the previous four years.

Pelosi helped pave the way for Van Hollen to secure his new role, as did, significantly, outgoing Budget Chairman John Spratt of South Carolina, who lost his seat in the 2010 wave.

One would think that, if the 2010 midterms had lessened Van Hollen's standing in anyone's eyes, it would be those of defeated incumbents. But Spratt, who has long been a target of Van Hollen's counterparts at the National Republican Congressional Committee, endorsed Van Hollen to succeed him on the committee, just eight days after losing his own seat despite the DCCC's efforts. Spratt had served in the House for 28 years.

In fact, Van Hollen doesn't seem to be collecting any blame for the massive losses of 2010, despite Democrats losing control of the House on his watch.

"I have, since the election, talked to virtually every Democrat who won or lost, and I have yet to hear from a single one who said the DCCC should have dome more, should have done it differently," Congressman Steve Israel, who served as Van Hollen's recruitment chairman and will now take the reins as DCCC chair*, told me the weekend after Election Day. "All of our candidates, win or lose, recognize that we did everything humanly possible, that Chris did everything humanly possible."

Spratt wasn't the only defeated Democrat to voice support for Van Hollen after Election Day.

"While we came up short during a hard fought election cycle, it wasn't because of a lack of support or hard work on Rep. Van Hollen's part," said Arizona Congressman Harry Mitchell, a Blue Dog who lost on Election Day, when asked about Van Hollen's performance at the DCCC. "There is certainly a reason for us to be disappointed, but when you think about what was accomplished over the last four years, there are even more reasons to be proud. Chris went to bat for a number of us, and as a colleague, I remain grateful for his leadership."

Said one aide to a member who lost: "He worked 24/7. It was incredible. He was in constant communication with us and with other members and candidates."

Van Hollen is a creature of Washington. The son of a Foreign Service officer, he lived abroad in his early life but completed high school at Episcopal, got a Masters in public policy from Harvard, and earned a law degree from Georgetown. He served as a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before going on to work for Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer and later serving for 12 years in the Maryland General Assembly. He's seen as an excellent communicator, and his public personality is mild. He's not an aggressive rhetorician, or a populist, but a Washington gentleman.

As he assumes his new role on the Budget Committee, this new job will be quite different from his last. And it will be an important one.

The Budget Committee will be the scene of partisan wrangling over spending, now that Republicans have taken over the House. Though Congress did not pass a budget last year, Van Hollen could find himself as the leading Democratic voice on a debate over the budget this spring. His committee will share jurisdiction over deficit-reduction matters with the House Ways & Means Committee, as Republicans figure out how to make good on their campaign pledges to reduce the deficit and rein in federal largesse.

He will face off, in these debates, with another rising star: Wisconsin's Paul Ryan, the incoming Republican chairman of the committee.

Ryan has made a big name for himself as the GOP's budget wiz, and his proposals to cut entitlements have been attacked by Democrats on a national scale. Along with Sen. Robert Menendez's operation at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Van Hollen's DCCC took aim at these proposals during campaign season, accusing Republicans of wanting to slash Medicare and Social Security.

Ryan has become the GOP's leading voice on budgetary matters, and Van Hollen will find himself seeking to counterbalance the fiscal hawk from Wisconsin. With the incoming, Tea-Party-backed Republican class of 2010 calling for fiscal austerity, the House Budget Committee could be the site of showdowns over entitlements, if (and this is a big if) GOP leaders assent to Ryan's personal leanings, which extend beyond the deficit-reduction measures agreed on by the House GOP conference.

Van Hollen is Pelosi's chosen voice to speak for the party as those debates unfold in committee rooms over the next two years. The job change takes him away from the world of politics, strategy, and fundraising, and into the world of policy.

The new job will place Van Hollen at the intersection of macro political currents that swept Republicans into power, and at the intersection of negotiations between House Republicans, House Democrats, both Senate caucuses, and the White House.

After the 2010 midterms, this will be the next test in his career.

*Israel was tapped as DCCC chairman on Friday afternoon, after this post was published. The post was updated Saturday.