Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland is Paul Ryan's Democratic counterpart… (Evan Vucci / Associated…)
TAMPA, Fla. -- Call it the battle of budgets, brains and beer.
Before Paul Ryan takes the stage at the Republican convention, and Americans are introduced to the architect of the GOP's austerity budget, his Democratic counterpart in the House offered another view Wednesday of Mitt Romney's vice presidential running mate.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland is among his party's best budget minds -- its answer to the brainy, wonkish Ryan, and just as affable as he wades through the weeds on deficits, debts and Medicare acutarials.
The two men, in fact, have a friendly rapport: They shared beers over dinner after they first ascended to the top spots on the House Budget Committee in 2011.
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But make no mistake, Van Hollen said at the Democratic war room outside the GOP convention in Tampa, the budget buddies have boundaries.
"It's very important not to mistake congeniality with compromise," Van Hollen said. "The question is when Congressman Ryan makes his presentation, whether he will level with the American people and tell them that the fundamental choice they make with the Romney-Ryan budget is another round of windfall tax cuts for the very wealthy -- for people like Mitt Romney -- at the expense of everything and everyone else."
The debate between the two rising party stars is well-known among students of federal budgets -- a Capitol Hill version of the fresh and saltwater schools of economics.
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Ryan believes the "Path to Prosperity," as his budget is called, comes from lowering tax rates for all Americans, including the wealthy, reducing the federal deficit by slashing government spending and overhauling the Medicare and Medicaid health safety nets in ways that reduce their costs to Washington. House Republicans have twice agreed with him, and voted overwhelmingly to pass the plan.
Van Hollen, a decade older, agrees the federal deficit needs to be reduced, but not by shifting healthcare costs onto seniors and the states, as nonpartisan analysts say would happen under Ryan's plans to create a voucher-like option for Medicare. Like President Obama, he would ask wealthier Americans to pay higher taxes.
And so the debate rages on, with at least one side on display Wednesday night during prime time in Tampa.
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Ryan says deficits soared under President Obama, which is true -- the federal deficit is set to reach $16 trillion after massive federal outlays coupled with lower tax returns during the economic downturn. The economic uncertainty has left companies skittish about hiring.
Van Hollen reminds that debt not only doubled under George W. Bush -- after deficit-spending on wars and a new prescription drug benefit -- but zeroed out what was supposed to be a $5-trillion surplus by 2010. After eight years of Bush, there was a net loss of private jobs.
"This is no longer just a theory," said Van Hollen about the Ryan plan, which he called a "hard-right U-turn to the failed Bush trickle-down economic policies."
"It's right there for everyone to see," he said. "You should go listen to what they're planning."
And Wednesday night, millions of Americans will.
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