WASHINGTON -– Chris Van Hollen paused several beats, and took a deep breath.
"I have to say, unfortunately, there are not many highlights" from the last year, he said Thursday. The Maryland congressman, one of the top Democratic leaders in the House, was stumped. "In fact, let me think about a highlight. Hmmmm. What would be a highlight of the last year?"
Finally, seated in his Capitol Hill office, Van Hollen settled on an answer. "Look, at the beginning of the year we avoided what was called the fiscal cliff. You know, the agreement I think it was satisfactory. We might have been able to do better," he said.
And that about sums it up. The only semi-positive thing Van Hollen could name was passed on the first day of the year after an ugly and contentious process.
Van Hollen, in his 10th year as a congressman and a leading candidate to be speaker of the House some day, did not mince words about why 2013 has been a downer.
"What would be the low point? Well it wasn't a congressional action. It was the very rocky rollout of the Web-based exchanges in the ACA," he said, referring to the Affordable Care Act.
Much of Van Hollen's frustration stems from the actions of Republicans. He added that "there was also a low moment, an even lower moment for the country, which was the totally unnecessary and really shameful government shutdown" led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
Van Hollen is also perpetually irritated by the inability of the House to pass major legislation, such as immigration reform, a farm bill, and a bill aimed at eliminating discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation.
The year-ending bipartisan agreement on the budget, forged by Van Hollen's foil on the House Budget Committee, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), gave Van Hollen some hope that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) might decide in 2014 to bring bills to the floor that would be rejected by a large number of Republicans, but would still pass.
"I measure [productivity] by problems solved," and not by number of bills passed, Van Hollen said. "But the bills that are pending before the House are major problems. … We could resolve the productivity issue in 24 hours if the speaker would allow a vote."
Boehner's chastisement -– after a budget deal was reached –- of outside conservative groups like Heritage Action, FreedomWorks, the Senate Conservatives Fund and Club for Growth, which have constantly opposed GOP leadership and pressured rank-and-file members to move further to the right, gave Van Hollen some reason to be optimistic.
"I don't know if that's a turning point or not. It will be interesting to see if Republican House members feel any repercussion from that. Maybe if they don't get too much pushback, maybe that will send a signal to them that they can cooperate on other big national issues. Maybe they will not be scared of the shadow of the right wing tea party every time they do something," he said.
It was in Van Hollen's assessment of Boehner's political calculus over the past year, especially on immigration reform, that the Democratic leader gave the most interesting, nuanced answer. He showed an understanding of the Republican speaker's dilemma, even though he still condemned him for his handling of it.
"I think he was afraid to lose the speakership [over an immigration bill]," Van Hollen said. "I think he was not prepared to put the country first in that regard. But I also think that he made the assessment that if he were to lose the speakership, it wouldn't be any better. I don't disagree with that. He probably said from his perspective he's doing the best he can in a bad situation."
He then quickly shifted gears.
"My patience has run out with Speaker Boehner because I thought that long before today he should have stood up to the outside tea party groups. My view has always been that he could do that and still survive as speaker," he said. "This is an example where he actually took them on and said these outside groups are just promoting themselves by taking these positions. So again, if his members vote for this [budget agreement] and don't get too much flak, maybe it will embolden the speaker to finally do the right thing" on immigration.
As our conversation wound down, Van Hollen's face brightened as he talked about his newfound appreciation for the power of viral and social media. It's been sparked, he said, by the explosion of interest in a five-minute YouTube video featuring him interrogating a Republican House member on the floor during the government shutdown, revealing that the GOP rigged the rules to avoid any votes on reopening the government.
"This thing went viral, and it got over 3.5 million [views]," Van Hollen said. "There were some media sites that I discovered for the first time. We were on Upworthy. So when I happened to be visiting the president a week later, he said, 'You're doing better than Lady Gaga out there.'"
"Not that I've been skeptical, but I've become more of a believer in the power, because when I went to like the Silver Spring Thanksgiving Parade, more people you know, had seen that than had seen any newspaper thing or on cable TV. And young people," he said.
"My kids never thought I did anything cool until [that]," Van Hollen said.
Sounds like that was the highlight of the year.