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Slaughter, Higgins lose clout in realigned House ; GOP takes over, taps Boehner as speaker

Republicans took control of the House of Representatives on Wednesday, ending a four-year Democratic reign and vastly diminishing the power of the two Democratic House members who represent Buffalo.

As Republicans elected John A. Boehner of Ohio to succeed Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, as speaker, Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, stepped down as chairwoman of the powerful Rules Committee, which shapes the legislation that goes to the House floor.

And Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, was forced to give up his seat on the Ways and Means Committee, the premier panel that oversees everything from taxes to health care to Social Security.

Higgins was second-from-the-bottom in seniority among Democratic members of Ways and Means -- and six Democrats had to lose their slots on the panel in the sweep that brought Republicans 64 new seats in the November election.

Rep. Chris Lee, a Republican from Clarence starting his second term, won a seat on Ways and Means.

Those were just a handful of the changes that sorted themselves out on the House floor and in the nearby House office buildings, where jubilant Republicans held daylong receptions to welcome constituents and celebrate their new power.

The Senate also reconvened, with Democrats holding a narrowed 53-47 voting edge.

Boehner -- the second of 12 children sired by a couple who owned a Cincinnati bar where he worked while growing up -- seemed to be humbled by it all. His eyes welled with tears before his swearing-in, and in his speech afterward, he said voters "have reminded us that everything here is on loan from them. That includes this gavel, which I accept cheerfully and gratefully, knowing I am but its caretaker."

The new Republican majority already has laid out an ambitious agenda, setting a vote next week to try to repeal President Obama's signature health care reform bill and vowing to work to cut federal spending and the deficit.

"No longer can we kick the can down the road," Boehner said. "The people voted to end business as usual, and today we begin to carry out their instructions."

The American system, however, may conspire against the House majority's plans.

Democrats controlling the Senate will be able to block many House measures, and Obama holds veto power that he would be sure to use to prevent a repeal of health care reform or major tinkering with other parts of his agenda.

Obama told reporters he expects Republicans to "play to their base" by taking votes attacking his agenda in the short run.

"But I'm pretty confident that they're going to recognize that our job is to govern and make sure that we are delivering jobs for the American people," Obama said. "My hope is that John Boehner and [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell will realize that there will be plenty of time to campaign for 2012 in 2012."

Boehner also vowed be more open than Democrats in running the House. Pelosi and Slaughter, her legislative mechanic, came in for much criticism for shutting the GOP out of lawmaking, but Thursday on the House floor, Slaughter hammered the Republicans for immediately repealing the House voting rights of the delegates from the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.

She also lambasted the incoming majority for failing to adhere to a pay-as-you-go rule requiring Congress to fully fund all its actions.

After much complaining about the deficit during the campaign, "one of their first acts will be to increase the deficit by $143 billion" by voting to repeal the health reform bill, which is projected to produce that much in savings, Slaughter said in a brief interview.

She said she expected to be able to work with the Republican majority, but she lamented the loss of "earmarks," the congressionally funded projects that the new majority has banned.

Earmarks have been a huge boon to everything from the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus to small local highway projects, and "some communities will not be able to do projects" because of the earmark moratorium, Slaughter said.

Higgins said he would seek seats on the Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs committees after losing his spot on Ways and Means.

He said that as a border city, Buffalo could benefit from his presence on the Homeland Security panel. Beyond that, Higgins has long had a strong interest in foreign affairs, repeatedly joining congressional trips to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I will find a way to be effective" despite the loss of his key committee slot and the earmark moratorium, Higgins said.

Eventually, he expects to return to the powerful tax-writing panel once more-senior Democrats depart it.

"I maintain my seniority," he said. "I'll be back."

Western New York's two other members of Congress -- Lee and Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning -- faced no such quandaries as they joined the new Republican majority.

Lee vowed to use his new spot on Ways and Means to promote tax policies that would benefit manufacturing, which in turn would benefit the Western New York economy.

"It's a huge opportunity for me," said Lee, a former executive at his family's manufacturing firm. "There are very few if any members of that committee who have any experience in manufacturing."

Key to all of that for Lee will be simplifying the tax code, a priority Higgins also mentioned and that Obama has pushed.

"The tax code is so complicated that it's noncompetitive," he said. "It's pushing jobs out of the country."

Reed vowed to continue to press for fiscal restraint, a key tenet of the platform that won him the seat vacated by Rep. Eric J.J. Massa, D-Corning, who resigned last year.

Reed took office in November, giving him a seniority advantage over the huge freshman Republican class. But he said he expects to work with those other new members who won office by forging alliances with budget-conscious "tea party groups."

"As a block we can be a very influential body," Reed said. "The first signs are very positive."

Things were much less positive for Pelosi, who relinquished the speaker's gavel after a vote in which 19 Democrats defected from her failed candidacy for speaker -- the most for any House leader since 1997.

Eleven of those members voted for Rep. Health Shuler, D-N.C., while several other lawmakers also received votes.

Pelosi ran the House in a highly partisan fashion, and Boehner acknowledged that over recent years, "a great deal of scar tissue has built up on both sides of the aisle."

She now leads the 193-seat Democratic minority in a House with 242 Republicans.

News wire services contributed to this report.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com.

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