Share this article

print logo

Reed earns his moment in spotlight; From key role in payroll tax cut to a seat on Ways and Means panel, Republican lawmaker from Corning finds himself in the limelight.

WASHINGTON -- A year and seven weeks after winning election to the House and a year and five weeks after nearly dying from a blood clot, Rep. Tom Reed of Corning found himself standing Thursday in a place where few freshman lawmakers ever stand: just behind the House speaker's right shoulder.

The speaker, Ohio Republican John S. Boehner, had chosen Reed as one of eight House negotiators on the then-stalemated bill to extend a payroll tax cut. And suddenly Reed, not long removed from being a small-town mayor, found himself defending the House GOP's opposition to a two-month tax cut extension before a national audience on C-SPAN.

Only time will tell whether that's a good or a bad thing.

Just hours after the press conference where Reed dismissed the Senate's two-month bill as a "politically convenient" way of getting Congress and the president home for the holidays, Boehner agreed to that very same bill.

And Tom Reed's moment in the spotlight became something to explain.

"My initial reaction is that the speaker did what had to be done, even though it was a demonstration of politics winning out over policy," Reed said on Friday.

Astonishing as the House Republican flip-flop was, Reed's presence in Boehner's office through much of that fateful day might be even more astonishing.

Freshman lawmakers usually are relegated to the back bench, and low-rung committees like Small Business.

Not Reed. Like his neighbor to the north, Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Amherst, he's become something of a star in the House freshman class.

He spent a year now wandering the halls of Congress wearing a broad-faced grin and dishing out jokes and kind words to those he meets. Meanwhile, he's always perfectly ready to rail at length on the House floor or to reporters about the dangers of the debt and business as usual and just about everything else that worries the tea party.

The barrel-shaped, jowl-jawed lawmaker is, by all accounts, among the nicest, hardest working tea partiers you'll ever meet.

And that may just be the reason why he's gone places where few first-year lawmakers ever go.

Most notably, Reed now serves on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, which, in his words, "touches everything."

It was a long-term goal that Reed achieved quickly for many reasons, including the Craigslist catastrophe that drove Rep. Chris Lee, R-Amherst, out of the House and off the committee, leaving the panel without a Republican from New York. Reed lost out on filling Lee's committee seat, but when another seat opened in June, Reed got it.

If you ask Reed how he ended up on the panel, he'll tell you: "I walked the speaker's dog four times a week."

But if you ask Rep. Dave Camp, the Michigan Republican who heads Ways and Means, you'll hear something entirely different.

"As you talk to Tom, you realize he is very policy-oriented, that there's a lot of substance there," Camp said. "He really stood out from the start. He has impressed a lot of people already. He has a good work ethic, and he's always well-informed."

Reed's rise to prominence in the freshman class happened very differently than that of Hochul, who found herself in the national spotlight by winning an upset special election to replace Lee in a strongly Republican district.

In contrast, Reed's rise started behind the scenes, where only his colleagues could see.

In March, Reed started collecting signatures among his freshman colleagues on a letter expressing support for free trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

>Strong candidate

A lawyer by training and real estate developer on the side, Reed is a business-first conservative with a deeply held belief in free trade -- but at the time, Camp noted, it wasn't clear how many of Reed's freshman peers felt the same way.

"He signed up 60-plus members on that letter," Camp said. "That really broke the logjam," and showed the Republican leadership that it had the support it needed to get those trade deals passed.

That episode so impressed the House leadership that he quickly became a strong candidate for Ways and Means, Camp said.

Reed had taken the initiative unexpectedly -- just as he had two years earlier, when he decided to run for Congress.

After President Obama took office in January 2009, he pushed a $787 billion economic stimulus bill through Congress and started talking about a massive overhaul of the health care system.

And Reed, conservative to the core, was appalled.

"I'm sitting there and I'm saying: this is not the America I want my family raised in," Reed recalled. "There was this tremendous expansion of the role of government, and no one was talking about how you were going to pay for it. So I got concerned."

This concern led him to a tea party rally in Corning in early spring 2009, where he found a huge crowd of like-minded souls -- and the inspiration to run for Congress.

"Seeing that kind of engagement, I saw that I wasn't alone," Reed said. "And I said: if they're willing to stand, I'm willing to stand."

Reed was also willing to drive, day after day and night after night, to the far corners of New York's sprawling 29th district, which stretches from Cattaraugus County eastward to Elmira and then north to the Rochester suburbs.

And that's what Reed did, early and often starting in the summer of 2009, for what he thought would be a November 2010 showdown against then-Rep. Eric Massa, D-Corning.

Of course, that notion quickly evaporated when Massa resigned amid a staffer-groping scandal.

Suddenly Reed was the favorite in the fall election in the GOP-leaning 29th. Better-known Republicans such as Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks and former Rep. Randy Kuhl of Hammondsport looked at the race but took a pass. They all cited their own reasons, but Reed's friends and colleagues noted that he already had the support of the district's county GOP chairmen.

"Basically, everybody liked Tom," said Bill Hatch, the former Steuben County GOP chairman.

Reed easily dispatched the Democratic candidate, Afghanistan War veteran Matthew Zeller, and traveled to Washington to take Massa's long-vacant seat in mid-November 2010.

And then the unimaginable happened.

A day before he was set to be sworn in to Congress, Reed woke up in a Washington hotel, unable to breathe. The mysterious lump on his leg, which he had ignored, turned out to be a blood clot. And that night it broke free and settled in both his lungs.

Thanks to blood thinners and the work of doctors, Reed survived.

He did so with lessons learned. He's down about 20 pounds, and while he admits he "still has a long way to go," he's walking the 12 blocks to and from work and trying to eat better.

What's more, he said the health scare "reminded me how precious living is. It can be taken away in a heartbeat. Having had that experience, it makes all the work we do here more important, because we don't have an unlimited time."

Arriving in Congress, Reed seemed a man on a mission.

He announced plans to form a Marcellus Shale Coalition of like-minded lawmakers who favor gas drilling in New York and Pennsylvania.

He talked tea-party tough, introducing -- and getting passed -- amendments that defunded projects he didn't like, such as one that would have helped Tijuana, Mexico, improve its sewer system.

He held dozens of town hall meetings across his district at a time when many of his New York colleagues held none.

And unlike many of his GOP freshman classmates, Reed also started reaching across the aisle.

He stood with his Democratic colleagues as they fought for aviation safety improvements in the wake of the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407. And with Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, he won changes to spending bills that will mean more money for the West Valley Demonstration Project and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

"He's very affable, very approachable," said Higgins. "As a colleague, that's the best you can hope for."

But on matters touching the debt, taxes and business, Reed tends to be unbending. And that's what he was this week, after Boehner appointed him to the conference committee that will eventually negotiate a year-long payroll tax cut.

Reed objected to the Senate's two-month stopgap because, to business people who plan and budget by the quarter, it made no sense. So he wasn't going to stand for it.

"I don't care about the political implications," he told National Journal in the middle of the week. "I don't care about my re-election effort. I came here to do what's right for America."

Standing so strong with his House GOP colleagues left Reed in an awkward position when Boehner agreed to the two-month extension, but Reed said he understood why that happened.

Not long after the news conference where Republicans decried the two-month extension, Boehner saw a statement from Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, saying the House should pass the two-month bill. Then Boehner told a small group of Republicans -- Reed included -- that the president had delivered the same message in a phone call.

House Republicans at that point had no choice but to agree to the two-month plan, or bear the blame for a 2 percent payroll tax increase for 160 million Americans on Jan. 1.

"You had to do what you had to do because of politics," Reed conceded.

>Offending both sides

Not surprisingly, though, Reed's shift on the payroll tax issue meant that he alienated one group of voters early in the week and another at the end.

"Let's get off square one and get the bill passed today," a woman from Corning said on Reed's Facebook page on Monday. "Extend the tax credit and the unemployment insurance and get back to running the country. We elected you to do a job. Please do it."

But by Friday it was the tea partiers who were incensed.

"You were on the negotiation committee. What the hell happened?" a Reed constituent wrote on Friday. "Why did you guys cave in and back down like cowards yet AGAIN to the Democrats? We elected you to stop them from doing these things!!"

Reed conceded that "in the short term, I'm going to take a hit" because of how the payroll tax debate played out. "But I may gain a lot of respect over the long term."

That could very well be true, said James Twombly, an associate professor of political science at Elmira College.

"However it comes out, if he's a Republican player and a bridge from the leadership to the other 80 [tea party freshmen], then he's influential, and that doesn't hurt a bit," he said. Twombly, a Democrat, said the conventional wisdom in the 29th district is that Reed has exceeded expectations in his first year in Congress.

And Reed, too, said he's pleased with how it's gone. He's particularly proud of his constituent services, which, he said, have helped 1,600 people in the district deal with problems with the federal government and other concerns.

But Reed is the first to concede that the payroll-tax saga ended in a hard lesson.

"It is true that as a freshman, I'm still learning the politics of the town," he said.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com