Paul Ryan and Chris Van Hollen: the fiscal bellwethers
The two House members – longtime ideological foes – will play a central role in bringing their respective party members along if Congress is ever to cut a grand fiscal deal.
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Beyond their often spirited repartee in the hearing room, Representative Van Hollen of Maryland was among the most fervent in trying to oust Republicans across the country in the 2012 election for their support of the budget plan championed by the Wisconsin Republican. Mr. Ryan excoriated Democrats' own budget priorities as the GOP's vice presidential nominee.
Yet if Washington is going to find the grand fiscal accord that has proved so elusive, these two longtime antagonists will play a central role. On both the politics and policy of the budget, Van Hollen and Ryan are bellwethers of their respective conferences. As much as any two people in Congress, they would be critical in rallying their colleagues to get a deal that has the tax increases Republicans abhor and the entitlement changes Democrats equally detest.
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While their political fights have been intense, the two men harbor a personal affinity and respect for each other, in no small part due to their similar dispositions. Both are amicably wonkish former congressional staffers. Both are rising stars within their own parties – Ryan is a potential 2016 presidential contender while Van Hollen is widely regarded as the favorite to replace House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California should she retire.
If there's going to be any movement on a "grand bargain" this summer – and signals from the president and leading lawmakers in both parties indicate there will be another attempt to fashion one – many expect the legislation to originate in the Senate. The path to passage there is more clear-cut.
But if such a bill were to land in the House, it would be Ryan and Van Hollen who would shoulder the responsibility for either supporting or sacking it. Rank-and-file members "want to know, is that policy going to work?... It's tough for normal members to know how effective or not effective" any politically uncomfortable grand bargain might be at actually fixing the nation's fiscal problems, says Maya MacGuineas, president of the Commission for a Responsible Federal Budget.