Obama campaign chooses Chris Van Hollen to play Paul Ryan in VP debate prep

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and ranking member Rep. Chris Van Hollen question Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf during a hearing on Capitol Hill June 6, 2012 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and ranking member Rep. Chris Van Hollen question Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf during a hearing on Capitol Hill June 6, 2012 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

(CBS News) Obama campaign officials confirm to CBS News that Congressman Paul Ryan's most frequent sparring partner has been chosen to play him in debate rehearsals, to help Vice President Joe Biden prepare for his debate with the Republican vice presidential nominee.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, is the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, which Ryan chairs. The two men clash regularly over the same issues that will come up in a vice presidential debate: spending levels, the deficit and entitlement reform. "Let's just say they've seen a lot of each other over the years," remarked one Democratic aide.

Another added, "There's no place where Ryan could go that Van Hollen didn't go up with him toe to toe. On any issue dealing with the budget deficit, Medicare, you name it, Van Hollen has the policy and political wit to give the soundbite that's just like Paul Ryan immediately."

Obama campaign officials say Van Hollen has accepted the role, but that debate preparation has not started yet.

Like Ryan, Van Hollen is an articulate debater with a commanding knowledge of the intricacies of the federal budget. Like Ryan, Van Hollen's party often turns to him to deliver closing arguments on important fiscal matters.

As members of their respective parties' inner circles, Ryan and Van Hollen have been deeply involved in congressional negotiations over the debt ceiling and debt reduction - negotiations that have sometimes fallen apart in spectacular fashion. Ryan was appointed by House Speaker John Boehner to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, also known as the Simpson-Bowles Commission. Van Hollen was appointed by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, also known as the supercommittee. Despite months of talks, both Simpson-Bowles and the supercommittee failed to produce debt reduction legislation.

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Van Hollen has called Ryan a friend, but in a conference call with reporters Thursday set up by the Obama campaign, the five-term congressman did not shy away from attacking Ryan's proposal to partially privatize Medicare coverage. "It's been kind of sad to see Congressman Ryan forced to flip flop on this issue by Gov. Romney," Van Hollen lamented, before arguing that Romney's plan would also hurt Medicare recipients. "It's a reckless plan, and we can't afford to take the guarantee out of Medicare for seniors."

The Romney campaign cites Ryan's work with Van Hollen on the budget committee as evidence that Ryan has a history of reaching across the aisle. But Van Hollen rejects that assertion. "Let's not confuse civility with a willingness to compromise," Van Hollen said in a recent television interview.

There's no better place to hone one's debate skills than on the House floor, and over the past 14 years Ryan has developed a reputation as an impassioned and confident debater who doesn't back down - skills that will serve him well in his single debate with Biden, scheduled for October 11. "Democrats are not going to trump him by if they just go and try to read a political talking point page. Paul will destroy their argument," said Ryan's colleague, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. McCarthy, who as Majority Whip is the third-ranking Republican in the House, said Ryan would make a formidable opponent: "I've not found somebody in Congress that's smarter than Paul."

Biden was also known as a tough debater when he was in the Senate, but he's been away from Congress for four years now, which made it even more critical that the Obama campaign select a mock debate partner who can inhabit Ryan's worldview and help Biden prepare for his one and only debate against Ryan.

The Obama campaign has already confirmed that Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., will play the role of Romney in President Obama's debate preparation. Kerry and Romney, who both hail from Massachusetts, have known each other for decades. Kerry has the added perspective of having participated in a series of presidential debates when he ran for the office in 2004.

The Romney campaign has not announced who will inhabit the roles of Mr. Obama and Biden as Romney and Ryan prepare for their debates. Four years ago, when John McCain and Sarah Palin were on the ticket, the McCain campaign tapped Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, to play Mr. Obama, while McCain foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann played Biden. On the Democratic side, then-Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm played Palin and Washington lawyer Greg Craig played McCain.

Participating in debate preparation can be time consuming, especially for a member of Congress seeking reelection in the fall. But if Van Hollen's past elections are any indication, he is likely to coast to victory in his highly Democratic suburban district just north and west of Washington, D.C. In 2010, he won with a comfortable 73 percent of the vote.

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    Nancy Cordes is CBS News' congressional correspondent.