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Federal Budget Fight Reveals Differences Between Would-Be Mikulski Successors

Matt Laslo for wypr

Usually, you think the budget brawls in Washington pit Republicans against Democrats. And that’s true. But this year they also highlight the differences between two Maryland Democrats aiming to replace retiring Senator Barbara Mikulski.

There’s Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee and the party’s lead attack dog on the GOP budget. And then there’s Donna Edwards, who has become the favorite of the more liberal wing of the party.

At a recent news conference, Van Hollen charged that the Republican budget would “start charging interest” on student loans while students are “still in college” and that it would slash Pell Grants, piling “more debt on those students getting out of college trying to find a job.” Not only that, he said, senior citizens “will immediately see higher prescription drug costs.”

Republicans want to lower taxes on top earners and cut social programs, he said, while the Democratic alternative closes tax loopholes and invests in education and jobs.

“I'm putting forward the Democratic alternative which grows the economy with more shared prosperity,” he said. “That's what I've done in the past, that's what I'm doing now.”

Edwards supported that budget, but at the same time, she voted for the so-called progressive budget, which is like Van Hollen’s budget on steroids: it calls for higher taxes on the wealthy, supports unions and allows states to move to single payer health care.

“It really looks out for the needs of working people and the middle class,” she said. “So I think it's an important investment to make and you grow an economy by investing in its people. You don't grow an economy by investing in the top. You grow an economy by investing in working people and that's what the progressive budget does.” 

Van Hollen opposed that budget partly because it would increase federal spending by some two trillion dollars. But Edwards argued that hiking the national debt in the short term works well for the nation in the long term. 

“I mean we've proven it over and over again,” she said. “You invest in education, you get a return on your dollar. You invest in infrastructure, you get a return on your dollar. You invest in job training, you get a return on your dollar. And progressive budget - the people's budget - is an investment in our people.”

That sort of talk has won her support from progressive groups.

“Donna Edwards has consistently showed that she stands with progressives on their moral fights on these populist progressive economic issues,” said Neil Sroka, communications director for the liberal advocacy group Democracy for America.

But Van Hollen says it’s a bit early for Edwards to lay claim to the progressive mantle.

“Look, just talk to all of the progressives in the state of Maryland who I've worked with,” he said, “folks in the environmental committee, in the labor union, the education committee. They know my record; no one's being fooled."

While Van Hollen enjoys the support of top Senate Democrats, including minority leader Harry Reid, the leader of his own party in the House, Nancy Pelosi, has not made any endorsements in the race.

Meanwhile, Reid’s endorsement of Van Hollen irked Barbara Mikulski. She said she wanted to make it “very clear that I did not want Sen. Reid's endorsement to look like it was an endorsement of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee."

So, while budgets may be boring, you can expect to hear a lot more about Van Hollen’s and Edwards’ competing votes as the Maryland Democratic primary heats up.