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Collins moves from Trump advocate to power broker

WASHINGTON – The election of Donald J. Trump as president turned Rep. Chris Collins from back-bencher to power broker.

After three relatively low-key years in Congress followed by a year as one of Trump's most outspoken supporters, the Republican from Clarence now finds himself as the point person for recommending a new U.S. attorney for Western New York as well as, most likely, a new federal judge.

He finds himself in charge of a system for helping Trump fill 4,000 political positions throughout the executive branch.

And he hopes to serve as an informal liaison between the White House and Capitol Hill as an ambitious new all-Republican government takes shape.

Collins' role, for now, is as the congressional liaison on the executive committee of Trump's transition team.

"My role is very clear," he said in an interview Thursday. "We are the clearinghouse for everything coming out of Congress."

Collins' influence increased not only because of his willingness to go on television again and again as an advocate for Trump, but because of some longstanding traditions that will give him strong influence over who is the next U.S. attorney in Buffalo, as well as the next U.S. marshal and the next federal judge.

When the president and the senior senator of a state are from the same party, the senior senator traditionally recommends candidates for those posts to the president. But when the senior senator and president are of different parties, that responsibility falls to House members who belong to the same party as the president.

With Collins being the majority-party member of Congress representing most of the Buffalo-based Western District of New York in the federal judicial system, he will be in a position to recommend who the district's new top prosecutor and federal marshal will be.

But he won't do it alone. Collins said he's consulting with Rep. Tom Reed of Corning and Rep. John Katko of the Syracuse area – Republicans who represent congressional districts that overlap in part with the Western Judicial District – in making any recommendations for those posts.

"I'm taking kind of a leadership role of sorts in making sure we’re in conversations with everyone," Collins said. "We're trying to get together a list of top names. I am not going to suggest I put a name forth and that name is chosen."

That collaborative approach sounds good to Reed.

"We're always obviously going to try to collaborate and to make sure the best and brightest are put in those positions," Reed said.

Working with Schumer

That collaboration will include the involvement of New York's two senators, both Democrats. Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand could block any objectionable appointments through a filibuster.

Collins and Schumer have had a tense relationship over the years, but Collins said it's particularly important for him to reach out to New York's senior senator -- now the Democratic minority leader -- on appointments and other issues.

"There are a lot of things we will be able to agree on," Collins said. "We are going to try to make sure that we are respectful of his position, and I think it’s actually good for New Yorkers – his role and mine."

Schumer – who recommended judicial appointments in New York during the Obama administration –  declined to comment for this article. But Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said Collins' newfound status is a natural consequence of the election.

"When you win an election, certain benefits come with that," Higgins said. "So you accept it."

Still, there could be obvious points of disagreement between Schumer and Collins.

Nominations and jobs

For one thing, Collins became close to Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama – Trump's selection for attorney general – during the campaign, and Collins said that means his recommendations for judicial appointments could carry extra weight with the administration. Yet Schumer told ABC last month there are "troubling things" in Sessions' record, and Sessions still needs to be confirmed by the Senate.

For another, Schumer put forward the name of Buffalo attorney Kathleen M. Sweet to be a federal judge in Buffalo, and the election threw her nomination into limbo.

Senate sources said it's unlikely the Senate will vote to confirm Sweet or any of outgoing President Barack Obama's other judicial nominations this year, meaning a fresh nomination will need to be made next year.

“I expect these nominations to start off on a new page with our new Congress and newly elected President," Collins said.

But that does not necessarily mean a huge partisan battle over who will fill the seat of U.S. District Court Judge William M. Skretny, who has moved to senior status.

"A lot of district court judges are not nominated because of their ideology," said Carl Tobias, the Williams Chair of Law at Richmond University and a close observer of the judicial nomination process. "People often get to be judges because of their qualifications."

Collins insisted that qualifications will be key both in judicial appointments and in the role the Trump transition has assigned to him: helping fill 4,000 political appointments throughout the new administration.

A database has been set up to filter the thousands of resumes the transition team is receiving, and Collins is making sure applicants are targeted toward the most appropriate positions. That is an unusually daunting task because Trump will come to the White House without the usual entourage of campaign donors and aides expecting to be rewarded.

Some applications are coming from Capitol Hill, but Collins said the vast majority -- from Buffalo and elsewhere -- are from people working in the private sector who want to go to work for Trump.

"You would be amazed at the number of people who are willing to put their careers on hold to come to work for the new administration," Collins said. "The enthusiasm is unparalleled."

Liaison for rank-and-file

Collins said he hopes to direct his own enthusiasm into service as a "formal/informal" liaison between the White House and Capitol Hill once the transition ends and Trump becomes president. Collins said he has already discussed that possibility with Trump, who seemed receptive to the idea.

"I'm not going to try to take a legislative role," leaving that to the House Republican leadership, Collins said. "But there's something to be said for being a liaison between the rank-and-file and the administration."

Collins said he envisions himself helping lawmakers made contact with the right administration officials on issues that matter to their districts, while of course advocating his own district's interests at the same time.

For example, he said he expects the Trump administration to take him seriously when he complains about the International Joint Commission's Plan 2014, which has drawn objections from Lake Ontario shoreline property owners regarding how the plan would regulate water levels.

Reed is expected to have great influence with the Trump administration, too. While he has not been as vocally supportive of Trump and has even carefully criticized his rhetoric on occasion, Reed signed on last week as a transition team vice chair, and he said he expects his impact to extend beyond Trump's Jan. 20 inauguration.

“It bodes very well for us in upstate Western New York,” Reed said. “There is often an upstate/downstate divide, but with Chris Collins and I having this communication and involvement in the Trump administration, I think that positions us very well to make sure our interests are on the radar of the White House.”

It also bodes very well for Collins, personally and professionally, and he reflected on that fact while bounding down the stairs of the House Longworth Building Thursday on his way to yet another interview about Trump at MSNBC.

Five years earlier, Collins was winding up his work as Erie County executive after voters rejected his bid for a second term.

In retrospect, "that was the best thing that ever happened to me," Collins said.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com

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