- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 13, 2009

No one in Congress is closer to President-elect Barack Obama’s incoming chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, than Rep. Chris Van Hollen.

But in typical Van Hollen style, the Maryland Democrat is taking steps to ensure that his key channel into the Obama administration remains his domain.

“I’m trying to persuade [Mr. Emanuel] to buy a house in my congressional district,” Mr. Van Hollen said with a slight smile during an interview in his Capitol Hill office.

“Obama moved his family, and I think Rahm - given the hours of the chief of staff, I think it would make sense,” Mr. Van Hollen said. “He’ll probably make a decision to do that.”

Such a move - which Mr. Emanuel would not confirm - would cement an already close bond between the calm and deliberate son of a diplomat and the fiery Mr. Emanuel.

“We have different approaches, but we have very similar goals,” said Mr. Van Hollen, who turned 50 on Saturday. His more youthful looks have been offset in recent weeks by the cane he has walked with since late December, when he had hip replacement surgery.

Besides having three children each, he and Mr. Emanuel share an interest in the “intersection of politics and policy,” Mr. Van Hollen said.

Mr. Emanuel brought Mr. Van Hollen to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) to help with candidate recruitment when he was chairman during the 2006 midterm election

Democrats that year regained control of the House and Senate, with a 30-seat pickup in the House. Mr. Van Hollen followed that performance in 2008 by picking up another 24 seats.

“I think we’ve both been successful in getting the results we wanted,” Mr. Van Hollen said. “I think we’ve learned from each other in many ways.”

Partly because of this relationship, the Maryland Democrat has been asked to serve as an assistant to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

Mr. Van Hollen’s new title - assistant to the speaker - was announced in December, and he has since hired six staff members and moved them into a temporary space down the hall from his seventh-floor Longworth Building office.

The post, created in the mid-90s by Rep. Richard Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, when he was minority leader, is Mrs. Pelosi’s reward for Mr. Van Hollen’s decision to stay on another cycle as chairman of the DCCC, which he has overseen for the past two years.

“What I said to the speaker after this last election is I’d be more than willing to stay on as the head of the DCCC, but I also wanted to have a policy role within the Democratic leadership,” Mr. Van Hollen said.

As he sees it, he can do as much, if not more, for the Democratic Party’s prospects this way than by raising money and recruiting candidates.

“In many ways, the elections in 2010 will be seen as a report card on how the new Congress is performing and will also be seen as sort of a midterm report card on the Obama administration,” he said. “Therefore, this is a time when more than ever, good policy will make for good politics.”

Mr. Van Hollen said he’ll “be working closely with the speaker, and [will] be in frequent contact with Rahm to try and work out the legislative strategy.”

The four-term congressman won’t be the only close link between the Capitol and the White House. Mr. Obama’s legislative affairs director, Phil Schiliro, worked for more than two decades as chief of staff to Rep. Henry Waxman, the California Democrat who now chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

And Mrs. Pelosi, along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, will communicate directly with Mr. Obama.

Yet observers say Mr. Van Hollen’s policy smarts and good political instincts will make him an invaluable part of the Democratic leadership as they try to design an economic stimulus bill and then move on to the twin challenges of health care and energy reform.

“He is going to play a key role in working with the Obama Administration to pass legislation that will get America moving in the right direction again,” Mr. Emanuel said in a statement e-mailed to The Washington Times.

Mr. Van Hollen said that after Congress passes Mr. Obama’s economic stimulus package, it will tackle the issue of reforming financial oversight systems.

On health care, although he said “work will begin immediately,” he cautioned that any final passage of a universal health care system likely will not happen in 2009.

“Our hope would be to do something in the next two years,” he said.

Fred Wertheimer, president and chief executive of Democracy 21, a campaign reform nonprofit, said Mr. Van Hollen possesses “a very interesting combination of political skills and substantive legislating skills.”

He and others also have given Mr. Van Hollen great credit for pushing ethics and lobbying reform while he was the DCCC chairman.

“Typically, the political apparatus wants as much latitude as possible in raising funds. And Chris said, ‘No we need to set the highest standards because that’s the path to victory,’” said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, California Democrat.

“He was like a dog with a bone,” said Mr. Cardoza, who entered Congress the same year as Mr. Van Hollen.

In addition, Mr. Van Hollen’s low-key style will enable him to navigate the complicated relationships that make up the Democratic leadership.

Mrs. Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, have clashed politically. Mr. Hoyer and House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat, have held each other at arm’s length.

Mr. Van Hollen has “the kind of personality that allows him to play a leadership role without creating any kinds of conflicts among various leaders, the capacity to get along well with all of them,” Mr. Wertheimer said.

“He doesn’t step on other people’s toes, and the fact that he is the liaison to the White House for the leadership makes him one of the most important members of Congress today.”

Rep. Joseph Crowley, New York Democrat, called Mr. Van Hollen “probably one of the nicest people in Congress.”

“I wouldn’t say he’s gregarious, but he’s a genuine person. When you have a conversation with him, you have his full attention,” Mr. Crowley said.

His peers in Congress say Mr. Van Hollen’s rapid ascent on Capitol Hill is a sign of things to come.

“Chris is going to have an opportunity, if he remains in the House, to be speaker. If he doesn’t, he’ll have an opportunity to be a senator from Maryland or governor,” said Rep. Artur Davis, Alabama Democrat, who also is considered a rising star.

“He has all of the skills that are necessary to be a national political figure,” said Mr. Davis, who said the only obstacle to seeking the presidency one day may be Mr. Van Hollen’s birth in Pakistan, when his father was posted there with the State Department.

“If there is no constitutional impediment, I think there is every potential for him to hold national office in 2016 or 2020,” Mr. Davis said.

Mr. Van Hollen’s 2001 congressional campaign was, in fact, a harbinger of elements that would propel Mr. Obama to the presidency in 2008.

In the primary, he defeated a member of the Kennedy dynasty, Mark Kennedy Shriver, behind support from young, energized and organized volunteers, high-income progressives and liberal advocacy groups for issues including education, health care and the environment.

These same constituencies would form the core of Obama Nation, and Mr. Van Hollen allowed that his campaign was “a very small microcosm” of the Obama campaign.

“We did have that kind of grass-roots army on a very local level. And we actually did use the Internet in its sort of earlier form as well,” he said.

In addition, one of the top political consultants on the Shriver campaign was David Axelrod, who became one of Mr. Obama’s chief campaign strategists and is headed to the White House as a senior adviser.

During his recovery from surgery, Mr. Van Hollen said he had been reading David M. Kennedy’s 990-page tome on the Great Depression, “Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945.”

“It goes into great detail about the Depression, and the Roosevelt administration’s responses to it, and the period of great experimentation,” Mr. Van Hollen said.

The book, he said, showed how FDR communicated honestly and effectively with the American people during their long stretch of economic hardship.

The challenge for Mr. Obama, Mr. Van Hollen said, will be to do live up to the many hopes and dreams of those who elected him.

“Expectations are very high right now. And I think President-elect Obama has done a good job of explaining things to the American people … making clear how deep a ditch we are in right now.”

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