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Slaughter becomes House traffic cop As Rules Committee head, congresswoman holds sway over matters reaching floor

In a tiny, cramped room deep inside the Capitol, Rep. Louise M. Slaughter now leads the committee that steers bills to the floor of the House of Representatives.

That makes Slaughter, a Democrat representing the oddly shaped "earmuff" district that connects Buffalo to Rochester via the Lake Ontario shoreline, the power player Western New York leaders will look to in the new Democratic Congress.

"She can stop bad things from happening," said Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

Told of Rudnick's comments, and asked if she could stop a bill that would harm the region from seeing the light of day, Slaughter said, in a matter-of-fact drawl that reflected her Kentucky roots and new clout:

"Oh, yes. I can stop that."

Such is the power of the chairwoman of the House Rules Committee, which sets the terms of debate for all the bills that come up for a House vote.

And that's just the beginning of the committee's influence.

"We have the ability to change any bill," Slaughter said. "We can rewrite the bill. We can combine it with other bills. We can reject it outright."

That's not all.

Former Rep. John J. LaFalce noted that the Rules Committee even can rewrite spending bills -- and include funding for favored local projects.

"Some people view [the Rules Committee chairman] as the second-most important person in the House, after the speaker," said LaFalce, a Democratic congressman from the Town of Tonawanda for nearly three decades.

That power stems from one simple fact. Because every piece of legislation must be approved by the Rules Committee, every member of the House someday might need a favor from the chairwoman. And that means Slaughter will be able to collect countless chits to use to benefit Western New York and her other interests.

But Slaughter is quick to note that the head of the Rules Committee hasn't always used that power to noble ends.

In the early 1960s, she said, the Rules chairman a Virginia conservative who opposed civil rights legislation would go back to his farm whenever such bills approached the floor, thereby preventing the House from voting on them.

Most recently, the Republican-led Rules Committee routinely barred Democrats from proposing amendments. In many cases, the panel met late at night or even past midnight to have its way with legislation far from the eyes of the news media and most legislators.

Slaughter the House Democrats' point person on ethics reform for the past year said all of that will be different under the new Democratic House leadership.

"This is a hugely important job, and in order to do it correctly we have to be fair and impartial," she said. "We have no intent to have our feet on the necks of the Republicans on the committee."

Slaughter and other Democratic leaders vow to allow Republicans to get votes on some of their amendments and to operate the committee in the light of day.

But under the new leadership's "100 hours" agenda, the House plans to quickly approve everything from ethics reform to a higher minimum wage without taking bills through the typically laborious legislative process. And as a result, Republicans say the new party in power is breaking its own promises.

"In their first 100 hours of governance, House Democrats will renege on a pledge to fully debate policy alternatives, denying the citizens of this country an open, honest discussion of the issues," said Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the House Republican whip.

Slaughter countered by saying the 100 hours measures which also include bills promoting stem cell research and greater competition in the Medicare prescription drug plan don't need such full debate because they already have been extensively discussed.

"These are things we determined and the election pointed it out that the country has to have," Slaughter said.

She also emphasized the importance of passing ethics reform to "get that out of the way and then get to the regular order."

That will be an entirely new order for Western New York.

For years, local leaders had looked to Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds of Clarence to use his connections with President Bush and the Republican House leaders to work Western New York's will.

But now they're looking to Slaughter. They said she should help bring home the bacon in the 2008 budget -- once Democrats end their temporary moratorium on "earmarked" funding.

Already, they said Slaughter responds to Buffalo-area issues even though her residence is in Fairport, 85 miles away.

Rudnick noted that at a hearing last year, Slaughter made an effective case against the Bush administration's attempt to require more documentation for travelers at the Canadian border.


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