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Did Van Hollen Miss a Layup Opportunity With Progressives? (Updated)

Van Hollen surprised some progressives when he didn't vote for their budget this week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated 2:42 p.m. |  Congressional Progressive Caucus members were emboldened this week.  

Their fiscal 2016 budget proposal won 96 votes on the floor, which translates into half of all House Democrats endorsing the policy platform of one third of the whole House Democratic Caucus — plus a higher threshold than for any CPC budget ever before.  

"It was very satisfying, and somewhat indicative of Democrats in our caucus looking for some alternative sort of way to express themselves that they don't see in the Republican budget, and to some extent in the Democratic proposal," said CPC Co-Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz.  

They also saw many of their priorities incorporated into the official House Democratic proposal spearheaded by Budget Ranking Member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., especially the so-called financial transaction tax.  

"We were honored [Van Hollen] would see that and recognize that as good policy, a smart thing to do," said fellow CPC Co-Chairman Keith Ellison, D-Minn. "It indicates to us that we are not only successful in getting votes on our budget, we are influencing other budgets."  

There was one thing they couldn't change, however: They couldn't get Van Hollen to actually vote for their budget.  

It came as a surprise to some CPC members who had recently started to hail Van Hollen as a surprise and welcome ally to their cause.  

Though he had always been considered more moderate than liberal, he'd begun to make overtures about wanting to work more closely with progressives, who have since the 2014 midterms hammered down on the message that the party needs to embrace a more populist platform.  

Van Hollen unveiled in January his own broad economic proposal , independent of his role as Budget Committee ranking member, and the substance excited progressives.  

They also cheered his decision to come to Philadelphia to participate in the CPC's annual summit, where he met with lawmakers and stakeholders and sought buy-in for the House Democrats' official budget resolution he was in the process of drafting.  

There was some sense that Van Hollen was starting to court the CPC as part of a larger strategy to shore up support from an increasingly powerful base inside the House Democratic Caucus. At the time, he looked like he could be next-in-line to be House Democratic leader if the most serious lawmakers, all in their mid-70s, decided soon to retire.  

But now Van Hollen is running for Senate to succeed Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski, who is retiring in 2016, and he's facing a challenge from fellow House Maryland Democrat Donna Edwards , who has quickly become a darling of outside progressive groups.  

Like Van Hollen, Edwards isn't an official member of the CPC; unlike Van Hollen, Edwards voted for the CPC budget.  

"There are groups that are going to be spending significant resources pointing out vulnerabilities Van Hollen has on his left flank," said an aide who works for one of the nearly 70 standing members of the CPC. "He had a real opportunity here to rebut some of those attacks."  

"CPC members who worked very hard on the budget, and consistently voted for this budget, have approached CPC leadership with concerns that [Van Hollen] didn't vote for the CPC budget," said a CPC member who didn't want to be identified. "It would have been a strong message. It's disappointing."  

Van Hollen's stance on the CPC budget isn't new, though. Every budget season, party leaders typically set up votes on a number of proposals from the various factions of the House. The resolutions are non-binding, but they represent an opportunity to compare different fiscal visions and make political hay.  

Many members double or even triple dip, voting for any combination of the different budgets: In addition to blueprints put forward by Democrats, Republicans and the CPC, there are proposals from the Congressional Black Caucus and the Republican Study Committee. This year, there were actually two different GOP leadership-sanctioned budgets which differed in defense funding levels.  

For the past four years, Van Hollen has voted "yes" on the Democratic budget and the CBC budget, and "no" on the CPC budget, pointing out that for all the revenue it raises, it still doesn't translate into the kind of tax breaks for working families he thinks are necessary.  

"I differ on some of the details of their policy changes," Van Hollen said during House floor debate. "But most of all, I am very grateful to the CPC for their significant contribution in the development of the Democratic alternative and for their vision — which I share — of a growing economy with more shared prosperity."  

The House CPC aide wasn't impressed.  

"It's interesting," said the staffer, "that is one argument. But he's running statewide. He's running to represent inner-city Baltimore, not just people in the D.C. suburbs. He could have made a shift if he wanted to."  

A Maryland Democratic strategist countered that consistency is key in running a campaign, plus Van Hollen's vote for the CBC budget provides plenty of cover for a statewide run in appealing to diverse constituencies.  

"Whether it's in Baltimore, Montgomery County, P.G. County, this vote won't hurt Chris in Maryland at all," said the strategist.  

Elsewhere, CPC members were touting Democratic Caucus Vice-Chairman Joseph Crowley as a "get" on their budget resolution. The New Yorker rose through the ranks as a moderate and former chairman of the centrist New Democrat Coalition. He has gradually been growing his base of support across the political spectrum of the Democratic Caucus, which coincides with his ambitions to climb the leadership ladder. "The Progressive Caucus is a major portion of our caucus and they have some great leadership," Crowley explained, "and I think many aspects of the budget they proposed I agree with and I wanted to make that statement. It's not to mean everything they proposed was something I agree with, but in large part I agree with it."  

CPC First Vice-Chairman Mark Pocan, D-Wis., was one lawmaker who praised Crowley's vote for the progressive budget. But Pocan, also a member of the Budget Committee, didn't fault Van Hollen for voting "no."  

"His task is very clear with the caucus: He's leading the message on the Democratic budget, he has to whip around it, make sure members are comfortable with it," Pocan said. "I would expect nothing less from him. He did a great job with it. He always does."  

Ellison also wouldn't go there: "I don't have anything to say about what a member did or didn't do."  

There were plenty of avowed progressives in the House Democratic Caucus who didn't vote for the CPC budget. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California is one of them; Democratic Steering and Policy Co-Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut is another.  

In the meantime, Grijalva said that the CPC's work isn't done. There are plans, he said, to take the show on the road over the next year in advance of unveiling the 2017 progressive budget, soliciting feedback from outside groups and stakeholders.  

It could lead to an even stronger voter turnout, he suggested.  

"With that buy-in and collaboration comes a very potent lobbying force," Grijalva said. "We need that in order to compliment what we're doing here."  

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