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WNY lawmakers accept 'hard truth' of Obama message

It was a tough message for a factory town, or a partisan, to hear -- but Buffalo-area lawmakers, for the most part, approved of President Obama's bipartisan tough talk in Tuesday night's State of the Union address.

"Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100," Obama said in delivering strong medicine to anybody with the false hope that such jobs will come back. "So, yes, the world has changed. The competition for jobs is real. But this shouldn't discourage us. It should challenge us."

Asked how people in Buffalo -- which has lost so many jobs in that way for so long -- would react to such comments, Rep. Brian Higgins said he understood what the president was saying.

"It's the hard truth of what's happened to the economy nationally and locally," the Buffalo Democrat said. "You can't run away from that fact. More importantly, he said America and Americans can compete" in a new world economy.

Obama proposed increased federal investments in innovation, infrastructure and education.

And Rep. Chris Lee, R-Amherst, said he was happy that the president put such a strong focus on making American companies competitive worldwide.

"If the president is willing to work with us to grow Western New York and our private sector while shrinking Washington, he will have a willing partner in me," Lee said.

Along with Higgins, the area's other Democratic lawmakers also offered praise for the speech.

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, said she was pleased that Obama stressed the need for high-speed rail -- one of her central interests -- as well as increasing the number of college graduates

"The president laid out a vision of America that he's matching with planned investments to make them more than dreams," Slaughter said.

Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., agreed, saying: "This last election was not a mandate for any one political party. It was a mandate for action. President Obama laid out a bold vision for this Congress. It is time to come together and work to create jobs across America."

Gillibrand said that bipartisan momentum led to great progress late in the last Congress and that she hopes to see the same in the new Congress that just took office with Republicans in charge of the House for the first time since 2006.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., stressed that the president offered a message that could appeal to both parties.

"The president has offered a balanced approach that hopefully can garner bipartisan support," Schumer said. "He is aware of the need to rein in spending, but also the need to grow jobs, the economy and middle-class paychecks."

Obama stressed that "the challenges we face are bigger than party and bigger than politics," but that didn't exempt him from criticism.

Lee said Obama did not offer very much in the way of specific spending cuts to address a federal deficit that threatens to spiral out of control.

"I just didn't hear enough of that," Lee said.

Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, agreed and issued the most critical statement of any local lawmaker in the wake of Obama's speech.

"The president talked about freezing spending, but that is not enough," Reed said. "We are more than $14 trillion in debt and simply cannot afford to pay for our super-sized government any longer."

Reed said cutting government spending would get the economy moving again, and he seemed to question Obama's strategy of both cutting and investing.

"I do not agree that more government spending and higher taxes are the solution," Reed said.

Despite the critical nature of his comments, Reed made plans to sit with Democrats from New York State during the speech, joining a bipartisan move to break down the partisan divide that for a century ran through the center of the House chamber at every State of the Union address.

Higgins sat with Lee, while Gillibrand sat next to Sen. John R. Thune, R-S.D., and Schumer sat next to Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Among local lawmakers, only Slaughter kept the partisan tradition going, sitting with the House's Democratic leadership.

Watching it all from one of the best seats in the House -- in the front row of the gallery, facing the president -- was Karen Eckert, one of the leading members of the Families of Continental Flight 3407.

Five months after helping push Congress into passing sweeping aviation safety legislation in reaction to a plane crash that killed 50 in Clarence Center nearly two years ago, Eckert looked down from the gallery at the president and the lawmakers she got to know during the legislative battle.

"It was an awesome experience -- overwhelming, really," Eckert said, "to sit there with your entire government in front of you."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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