Rep. Chris Van Hollen, praising House Speaker John Boehner for standing up to his party’s right wing on the budget, says the next test of congressional bipartisanship will be whether Republicans use the debt ceiling next year as a political weapon.
“Look, I think the jury’s still out on where we go from here,” the Maryland Democrat said in an interview for Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt” airing this weekend.
“The big test of that will be when we get to the debt ceiling, whether or not House Republicans again threaten not to pay the bills that are due and owing, and try and use that moment to extract, you know, concessions on their political agenda,” Van Hollen said.
The U.S. borrowing limit, which was $16.7 trillion, was suspended until Feb. 7 as part of the October deal to end a partial shutdown of the federal government. After that, the Treasury Department will be able to use so-called extraordinary measures to stave off default, such as suspending investments of a retirement fund.
The budget passed by the House yesterday covers $1.01 trillion in spending through March 2015 and would require that the debt limit be raised. The budget, crafted by a bipartisan committee led by Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, and Representative Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, passed 332-94, with 169 Republicans voting in favor.
The Senate plans to take up the budget on Tuesday.
“It was a good sign that Speaker Boehner finally stood up to the Tea Party crowd,” Van Hollen said. “The Tea Party crowd has essentially been running the show in the House of Representatives for the year.”
President Barack Obama has said he’s not willing to negotiate further spending cuts in return for Republicans supporting an increase in borrowing authority. Van Hollen said the government has incurred bills that must be paid.
The budget deal didn’t include the extension of long-term unemployment insurance sought by Democrats. House Republicans rejected Van Hollen’s bid to pay for the aid from cuts in farm subsidies being negotiated in agriculture-policy legislation.
Van Hollen said Democrats should tie support for legislation authorizing farm programs for five years, which may include cuts of $4 billion to $39 billion in food stamps over 10 years, with an extension of the unemployment benefits.
“I have lots of concerns about the ag bill, the way it’s shaping up,” he said. “But, my goodness, we know it’s got at least $15 billion in savings. Let’s use that to help these people who are out in the cold.”
Congressional Democrats enter the 2014 election year with headwinds from the flawed Oct. 1 debut of the website offering people insurance under the president’s health-care law.
Van Hollen, describing the roll-out of healthcare.gov as “very rocky,” said political damage for Democrats won’t be permanent. States including California, New York and Kentucky that run their own exchanges are doing well, he said. Maryland had stumbles similar to the federal site and is “struggling,” he said.
Obama added veteran Washington adviser John Podesta, a former White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, as an adviser, and is bringing back former legislative affairs director Phil Schiliro to oversee policy implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Both men will make a difference in how the Obama administration operates, Van Hollen said. Schiliro met with House Democrats yesterday to discuss the health-care law and how the White House could anticipate and correct flaws in advance.
Van Hollen called Podesta an “old pro.”
“I think you’re going to see continued improvement going forward,” Van Hollen said of the law’s implementation. “And as more and more people sign up and you get more and more people having access to affordable care who didn’t before, you’re going to have a very different story here.”