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Chris Van Hollen To Lead Senate Democrats' Campaign Committee

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Democratic Congressman Chris Van Hollen has been having a turbulent couple of weeks. His presidential candidate lost, but he won his Senate race in Maryland. And in return, he gets the tough task of heading up the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the next election cycle. Congressman Van Hollen joins us now - I should say, Senator-elect. Welcome to the show.

CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Good morning, Rachel. Great to be with you.

MARTIN: You have been given this big responsibility to help Democrats take back the Senate in 2018. Your party was hoping to have done that this past election. Does that feel more challenging today than it did a couple of weeks ago?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, it's definitely a different political universe than most of us expected to be in. The results of the elections means that the Senate Democrats are really the last line of defense between efforts from the Trump administration and Republicans in the House and Senate to roll back things like the Affordable Care Act, to roll back consumer protections under Dodd-Frank and also to prevent the Trump administration from rolling back the clock on civil rights and social justice. So the stakes are very high.

As we've all said, we will look for opportunities to work with the new administrations on things like infrastructure. But the Senate Democrats are the line of defense against rolling back the clock, and so that has raised the stakes considerably.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about infrastructure in a moment. But just looking forward to 2018, the Democratic Party will have 23 seats to defend. Donald Trump won 10 of those states. Where are you going to focus your efforts?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, a lot of those states are states where the message of focusing on the economy and making sure that we speak to the economic pain that so many Americans continue to feel is going to be front and center. And there's an area where Democrats have put forward ideas but have not, in my view, done a good enough job of going into those communities and talking directly, people to people.

It's one thing to have ideas on a piece of paper and talk in policy terms. It's another thing altogether to be in communities, talking directly to people. In my Senate race in Maryland, I was all over the state, not just in traditional Democratic areas but in Republican areas, reaching out and speaking to people. And I...

MARTIN: You think your party took those votes for granted in the presidential race.

VAN HOLLEN: I do. I do. And I think that we need a much more focused effort to let people know that the proposals Democrats are putting forward are actually the ideas that will help, you know, help people with higher wages and better jobs. We did not do a good enough job of doing that. In some places, we didn't show up. And so we're going to do that.

The good news is that the Democratic senators who are in the Senate today are people who have records of doing that in their own states, and so I think that they're going to be very focused on those issues.

MARTIN: With the minute we have remaining, let me ask you about infrastructure. It's a place where you said there could be some common ground with the new administration. It could be an expensive endeavor. How are you going to pay for new infrastructure without adding to the deficit?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, I put forward, and my colleagues have put forward, a couple of ideas. One idea has been to end these tax breaks that actually encourage American businesses and corporations to move jobs overseas and park a lot of their capital overseas and instead change the incentive so more than that investment happens here at home and focus that investment in the area of modernizing our infrastructure - roads, bridges, transit ways - but also broadband, clean energy platforms. So there's a lot we can do in that area.

President Obama proposed a fee on a - per barrel of oil. That's a more traditional way. But we're happy to look for ways to provide those resources with the new administration.

MARTIN: It's something - you see some potential cooperation on that.

VAN HOLLEN: I do. It's an area, Rachel, where Republicans in Congress today have resisted our proposals, our Democratic proposals, in the past. So if we can find some common ground with the new administration there, that would help move the country forward.

MARTIN: Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, soon to be Senator, thank you so much for your time.

VAN HOLLEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.