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Congressman Chris Collins

Representing the 27th District of New York

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GOP wave alters D.C. calculus for N.Y. delegation

Nov 10, 2014
In The News

The Republican wave that swept the nation Tuesday pushed New York’s two senators into the minority and dislodged Democrats from three House seats in the state.

And that’s likely just the beginning of change – and uncertainty – for New York’s leading federal politicians in the wake of the Republican sweep of Congress.

Sources in both parties said Wednesday the change is clearly a bad one for Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand, both New York Democrats – and for the two people Schumer selected this year to be federal judges in Buffalo.

In the meantime, political pros expect Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, to benefit, while Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, will not.

Statewide, lawmakers from both parties will have to confront the fact that they could be vulnerable in future elections.

Yet down in Chappaqua, one of the most prominent Democratic politicians – Hillary Rodham Clinton – might be facing an oddly comforting reality: Now that there’s a Republican-led Congress, she has a ready adversary to campaign against if she runs for president in 2016.

Here’s a closer look:

Schumer and Gillibrand are each Senate powers, with Schumer playing a leadership role in crafting his party’s message and Gillibrand cutting her own path as a strong advocate on progressive causes.

What they lost Tuesday, though, is control.

An almost inseparable ally of outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, R-Nev., Schumer is expected to remain third in the Democratic Senate leadership, but the agenda will probably fall to Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the likely GOP majority leader.

It’s too soon to know exactly what that will mean, but congressional sources said the new majority will likely revive House-passed bills that Reid had buried, such as measures tweaking the Affordable Care Act and mandating construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Gillibrand will likely suffer, too, even though McConnell has sided with her in her signature fight againt sexual harassment in the military. With Reid in charge, Gillibrand could at least get floor votes on her legislation, such as her successful attempt to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military. Now that’s far less certain.

Aides to both senators stress that both have a history of working with Republicans, which is true. But to witness their loss of control, look no further than Buffalo’s federal courthouse.

Schumer selected former U.S. Attorney Denise E. O’Donnell and Buffalo lawyer Lawrence J. Vilardo to serve as new federal judges in Buffalo, but the Senate has not yet confirmed them. And with Republicans wary of most Democratic judicial nominees, it’s highly uncertain when Buffalo’s vacancies will be filled.

Collins will begin his second term in Washington in a larger Republican majority, and that very well might mean that he will leave the comparatively low-profile committees he’s sitting on – Agriculture, Small Business and Science, Space and Technology – for one of the House’s “A-list” committees.

The longtime businessman and former Erie County executive has his eye on a spot on the Energy and Commerce Committee, a powerful panel with purview over much of the U.S. economy.

Given that there are no New York Republicans on the panel now, Collins’ odds of winning a seat there increased substantially Tuesday.

“I don’t take anything for granted, but nothing that happened Tuesday will have hurt my chances,” Collins said.

Higgins is seeking a spot on an A-list panel, too: the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, where he served briefly back when Democrats had a House majority. The panel has Democratic openings, and Higgins said he hopes to fill one, but the problem is that the larger GOP majority will likely mean fewer Democratic seats on all House committees.

It’s also unclear whether a budget-conscious Republican Congress will have any interest in the kind of huge investment in infrastructure that has been one of Higgins’ top federal priorities. But Higgins insisted that the GOP might just want to get something done about America’s deteriorating roads and bridges because now the party has the responsibility to govern.

“If Republicans want to be effective, they’ll have to work with the Democratic president” on such issues, Higgins said.

Tuesday’s election also proved that, for upstate and Long Island at least, the days of a stable and largely Democratic delegation are gone.

For proof, just look at the numbers. As as recently as 2011, Republicans controlled only three House seats in New York. Next year, they will control at least nine – and maybe 10, if Republican Mark W. Assini pulls a major upset and erases the 605-vote lead of Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, in a too-close-to-call race.

The sudden vulnerability of Slaughter, who represented parts of the Buffalo area between 2003 and 2012, says a lot about how bad a night Democrats had Tuesday, as well as a lot about the new political realities of the state.

While the president’s party almost always fares poorly in off-year elections, even historically popular Democratic lawmakers such as Slaughter suffered this year for a stark reason.

Because of President Obama’s unpopularity, “a lot of Democrats could not work up enough enthusiasm to vote,” said James E. Campbell, a University at Buffalo political scientist who is a Republican.

But sources within the two parties and Campbell said there was another reason for Slaughter’s close call and the defeat of two Democratic incumbents, Reps. Daniel B. Maffei of Syracuse and Timothy H. Bishop of Long Island.

A judge, rather than a gerrymandering State Legislature, drew up New York’s congressional lines after the 2010 census. That created a number of swing districts upstate and on Long Island.

Political pros said that means even someone such a Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican who beat his Democratic opponent by nearly 20 points this year, could be vulnerable in a presidential year when there is higher Democratic turnout.

Democrats, of course, are hoping for a high turnout in the state if Clinton, who once represented New York in the Senate, gains the party’s 2016 presidential nomination, as expected.

And while Democrats are distressed over Tuesday’s results, political insiders said Clinton has reason to be upbeat.

If the status quo had continued, with a split Congress battling a Democratic president, Clinton would likely have found it difficult to step away from the unpopular Obama, whom she served as secretary of state.

But with this year’s elections, everything changes. Political pros said Clinton now can just ignore Obama and portray herself as an agent of change.