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Plan for Falls heritage area held hostage by Oklahoma senator

Western New York lawmakers have worked for years to create a national heritage area in Niagara Falls, but now a senator from Oklahoma proudly says he's holding those plans hostage.

"Tell me how it's a priority to create a heritage area when we don't have the money to do what we need to be doing now, and the money we're going to use to create a heritage area we're going to steal from our kids?" asked Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican who is on a one-man crusade against what he considers bad lawmaking, at a meeting with reporters Thursday at the National Press Club.

Coburn has a "hold" on the bill approved by the House that would create six new heritage areas -- just as he has blocked several dozen other pieces of legislation so far this year.

During his meeting with reporters, he unloaded on two efforts that are dear to Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport: the heritage area bill and a bill she pushed for 12 years that would ban genetic discrimination.

"New York's got a $1.8 billion surplus. If you all want to do this, do it," he said of the heritage area. "If that's a priority in upstate New York, have your legislators get it done on a state level. We can't be all things to all people, and that's what we're trying to do because politicians want to look good at home."

Slaughter said she was astonished by Coburn's comments.

"The arrogance of it defies any explanation he can give," she said.

Asked to respond to Coburn's comments on the heritage areas costing future generations, Slaughter said: "I'll believe that if he stops funding the war."

She said it is obviously a federal responsibility to protect Niagara Falls. The bill would do that by authorizing $15 million to set up a commission to bolster tourism and guard the area's natural resources.

"If we can't protect one of the seven wonders of the world, what can we protect?" she asked.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., agreed.

"He doesn't understand the importance and community support that this heritage area has," Schumer said.

Coburn also apparently doesn't understand the New York State budget. Jeffrey Gordon, a spokesman for the state Budget Office, noted that the state doesn't have a $1.8 billion surplus as Coburn suggested, but rather a projected $4.3 billion deficit next year.

Under Senate rules, Coburn and any other senator can hold up legislation at will.

Schumer said he would work to get the heritage area bill past Coburn, but he couldn't explain quite how he would do that.

Coburn, meanwhile, acknowledged that the bill would pass if it made it to the Senate floor.

"They may roll me," he said. "Let's have this debate. I'll lose on the vote, but the American people will see again that we don't care about their kids and that what we care about is making ourselves look good at home."

Coburn had similarly harsh comments for parts of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, a Slaughter effort that passed the House by a margin of 420-3.

While lauding the bill's intent -- which is to prevent people from being discriminated against because their genetic makeup might make them prone to diseases -- Coburn said the current version of the bill leaves employers far too prone to lawsuits.

"The way it's set up now, it's a lawyer's dream," he said.

Coburn said he would be meeting with Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who heads the House committee that approved the bill, in hopes of improving the bill's liability provisions.

Asked why Coburn planned to meet with Miller rather than her, Slaughter said: "Some guys are just that way."

Schumer said Coburn "believes the federal government should be the way it was in 1888," but the Oklahoma senator offered a different explanation for why he stood in the way of so much legislation.

"The reason I'm holding these bills is that my office is actually reading the bills," Coburn said.


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