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Rep. Van Hollen: Obama's Focused On Helping Middle Class

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're going to hear from a Democrat in Congress now. Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, welcome to the program once again.

CONGRESSMAN CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Thank you Robert - good to be back.

SIEGEL: We heard from two of your Republican counterparts saying that one - we don't need another mandate for paid sick leave, and two - it's time to cut taxes, not to tax 529 college savings plans. Where's the middle ground between what the president proposed and what they're saying?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, the president made a couple of proposals including these in order to address the very real and chronic problem of middle-class squeeze. The president proposed a number of measures to help folks in the middle class who feel like they're getting squeezed on both ends. The earn paid sick leave is an important part of that. People need to be able to care for a sick loved one without having to forgo income and have to choose between taking care of someone who may be in really bad shape and paying the rent and putting food on the table. And there are a number of states that have moved forward in a way to do that.

With respect to other measures, the thrust of the president's middle-class tax provisions were to provide significant tax relief to working families, especially in the area of child care. And so he was looking for a number of things that would be able to relieve this pressure that folks in the middle are feeling.

SIEGEL: But the core of what the president called middle-class economics - of increasing taxes on the very wealthy in order to provide some relief to middle-income taxpayers - it's understood to be dead on arrival with the Republican majorities in Congress. What's the point of proposals that we know aren't going anywhere in this Congress?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, on the opening day of this Congress I heard speaker Boehner say he wanted to deal with the issue of wage stagnation and middle-class squeeze. That's what the president's proposing. If Speaker Boehner has other ideas, they should put them forward. And the president has said that our current tax code is skewed - stacked in favor of those who make money off of money and against those who make money off of hard work.

SIEGEL: But he's been saying that for the past several years, though. We know that - it would seem extremely unlikely that Republicans would support such a plan.

VAN HOLLEN: Well, I mean the purpose of the state of the union is to lay out your vision of the country and how you're going to move forward. And, you know, Republicans will have to answer by showing where they might be able to agree with the president, and we hope there might be some areas. But if they're going to say they want to address the problem of middle-class squeeze and wage stagnation, they should come forward with their own ideas. It's easy to criticize.

SIEGEL: After hearing President Obama's speech and his arguments for, as he says, middle-class economics, do you think perhaps that in the 2014 election campaign that Democrats distanced themselves too far from the president and that a more vigorous, frankly, more liberal campaign that sounded more like the state of the union last night might have been more successful?

VAN HOLLEN: I do believe that in the last election a number of Democratic candidates decided that they could distance themselves from the president. I believe in those cases it was a mistake. The big debate here is between an economic strategy Republicans have pursued that's based on trickle-down. What the president is saying is that the economy is strongest when more Americans are benefiting from increased economic growth - that you grow from the middle out and the bottom up, and he's putting more meat on that bone. And I'm looking forward to the debate.

SIEGEL: Representative Van Hollen, thanks a lot for talking with us.

VAN HOLLEN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, member of the House of Representatives speaking about last night's state of the union address. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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