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Courthouse funds revived Senate restores $115 million to advance new federal facility on Niagara Square

The Senate has given Buffalo's proposed $115 million federal courthouse, blocked by President Bush's budget last month, a fighting chance of being restored to the budget for the federal fiscal year that will begin Oct. 1.

Thursday night the Senate unanimously approved an amendment, promoted by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and several key Republicans, that restores funding for the project.

The Buffalo courthouse on historic Niagara Square tops the federal judicial conference's priority list. But in an attempt to rein in spending, the president called a moratorium on all courthouse projects.

But top Senate leaders, such as Sen. Chad Cochran, R-Miss., chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., chairman of the Budget Committee, worked with Schumer to restore the Buffalo project and courthouse work in Utah, Mississippi and Florida.

Schumer said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, helped to get the legislation through the Senate.

The amendment was one of many that authorized spending well in excess of the president's requests. The move signals friction between some Republicans and the White House, triggered by the president's low standing in the polls and midterm election worries.

"Now we have a pretty good chance of getting this under way" in the coming fiscal year, Schumer said.

Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, said through his spokesman Lawrence D. Platt that he was "hopeful" the Buffalo project might clear the House, where its fate is uncertain.

House Republican leaders have not released their spending plan, and Reynolds' role as chairman of the House Republican campaign committee could be pivotal on budget issues in coming weeks.

Reynolds wrote to a key appropriations subcommittee Friday asking for "sufficient funding for the priorities outlined by the judicial conference," which backs the Buffalo project.

"These courthouses, specifically the Buffalo project in my region that is at the top of the priority list, have long been waiting for this funding," Reynolds said.

Thursday, Rep. Brian M. Higgins, D-Buffalo, wrote to the same subcommittee, asking it to provide the $115.5 million.

The Michael Dillon Courthouse on the east side of Niagara Square is no longer adequate and has "major security issues," Higgins wrote.

"The judges' chambers are directly across the street from a multilevel parking garage, with a clear view from the garage floors into the chambers, making them vulnerable to attack," Higgins said.

Higgins reportedly had wanted the two other House members whose districts include parts of of Erie County -- Reynolds and Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport -- to join him in the request for funds. That failing, Higgins wrote his own letter.

Slaughter's spokesman Eric Burns said, "Congressman Higgins never approached Rep. Slaughter about supporting this request."

"[Slaughter's] staff received an e-mail request from Higgins' office this Wednesday, one day before the deadline," Burns said. "Congresswoman Slaughter supports the courthouse project and is sending a letter of support to the Appropriations Committee."

Burns referred to the deadline for submitting a formal appropriations request on the committee's form.

Funds restored by the Senate include $16 million for site and design work in Salt Lake City, $123 million for construction in Jackson, Miss., and $49 million for construction in Fort Pierce, Fla.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said she "will continue to work to make this critical project a reality for the people of Buffalo and the entire region."

e-mail: dturner@buffnews.com

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