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Bucking the party line; In her first year, Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul has taken more independent stands than her Democratic colleagues

After a year in office, Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul has not turned out to be the Nancy Pelosi knock-off that Republicans said she would be.

Instead, the Amherst Democrat -- who represents a GOP-leaning district that will get only more Republican this year due to reapportionment -- has voted contrary to the Democratic Party line on parts of the Obama health care law, the Keystone XL oil pipeline, gun control and several other major issues.

She's not planning to attend the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in September, saying: "I guarantee that my time will be better spent meeting the farmers, small businesses and other people who put me here."

And while she's planning to vote for President Obama for re-election, she gives the president mixed reviews.

"I don't think anyone should be surprised," Hochul said in an interview last week. "When I was running for election I promised to be an independent voice for the district. That's what I've promised and that's what I've delivered."

Republicans disagree, saying a few high-profile votes and some independent talk is not enough to mask a defining fact of Hochul's first months in office.

Last year, according to Congressional Quarterly, Hochul voted with the Democratic Party line 81 percent of the time and with the Obama administration 78 percent of the time.

"There is nothing independent about voting with Nancy Pelosi 81 percent of the time," said Andrea Bozek, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, referring to the Democratic minority leader from California.

Still, that 81 percent figure shows Hochul to be far more likely to buck the party line than Western New York's other representatives.

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, voted with her party 97 percent of the time last year.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, did so 93 percent of the time. And Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, toed the GOP line on 93 percent of the votes as well.

"Certainly your independence is a more open question if you have an 81 percent party voting rating rather than a 90 percent voting rating," said James E. Campbell, chairman of the political science department at the University at Buffalo.

>Not a party puppet

Campbell said there's an obvious reason why Hochul is taking more independent stands than her colleagues.

Republicans have a 7-percentage point edge in New York's newly redrawn 27th congressional district, which connects Buffalo's easternmost suburbs and the Southtowns with the western Rochester suburbs via the farmland in between. That compares with a 6-point GOP advantage in Hochul's current district, the 26th.

"She's in a Republican district, so she needs to do at least something to indicate that she's not just a puppet of the Democratic leadership," Campbell said.

To that end, Hochul has taken a complex and occasionally critical approach to the Obama health care law.

Hochul voted against GOP legislation that would have repealed that law in total. She said that's because she supports some of its key provisions, such as those banning discrimination based on pre-existing medical conditions, allowing people to keep their children on their health policies till age 26 and ending the Medicare prescription drug "doughnut hole."

But Hochul was only one of 28 Democrats to vote to repeal a controversial long-term care program included in the health law, saying it was just too expensive.

>True to her word

And she was one of only seven Democrats to vote to kill the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a panel of bureaucrats that would have the power to limit Medicare services.

"When you think of the practical application of it, and when they have to make their tough decisions, I had no assurances that some of those decisions wouldn't come back and impact Medicare beneficiaries," Hochul explained. "I'm staying true to my word to the people who put me in this position that I would not hurt Medicare beneficiaries."

Just last week she voted to repeal the health bill's tax on medical devices. And in addition, Hochul has qualms about the bill's requirement that everyone buy health insurance, a provision whose fate is now up to the Supreme Court. "The individual mandate is also troubling to people," she said. "It scares people. They don't like government interfering and forcing something they do not want to do."

Despite Hochul's nuanced views on the Obama health law, the GOP campaign committee has lambasted her for supporting it, saying, in robocalls this spring that she "supports continuing the government takeover of health care."

Asked to elaborate, Bozek, of the NRCC, said: "Western New Yorkers only see this one way -- either you are for ObamaCare or you want to repeal it."

>Support for pipeline

Bozek also criticized Hochul for supporting $500 billion in Medicare cuts included in the Obama plan.

But Hochul noted that those payments are to health care providers, not beneficiaries -- and that GOP budget plans have preserved those Medicare cuts.

She also noted that health care is by no means the only issue in which she has fled from Democratic orthodoxy.

She voted with Republicans on an energy bill and supported the Keystone XL pipeline, which would ship oil from Canada's tar sands all the way to Texas.

Many Democrats oppose the pipeline for environmental reasons, but Hochul said: "I think it's going to be a great job creator. I think it's hard to turn our back on that many jobs."

The pipeline is also important because America needs the oil it would ship, she said.

"I just don't want that oil to go through Canada, up toward Russia and then to China and bypass this country," she said. "It just didn't make sense to me."

It didn't make sense to Hochul, either, to bar people with a concealed-carry gun permit in one state from carrying that gun into another state -- so she voted with Republicans to force states to honor such out-of-state permits.

>Quibbles with Obama

"I think government has a role to play," she said of gun control, "but I think it should not be excessive," she said.

The federal debt should not be excessive, either, she said -- which is why she voted with Republicans on a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.

In fact, the growing debt is one of her quibbles with the Obama administration.

Asked to review Obama's performance, she said: "I would like to see the president take a stronger stand on cutting spending and reducing our national debt, and I've urged him to support job-creating projects like the Keystone pipeline. I do, however, share his goal of balancing the budget while protecting seniors and the middle class, and making millionaires and corporations pay their fair share."

If that doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement, well, it isn't.

She hasn't formally endorsed Obama, saying she hasn't been asked to do so, but she added that she will vote for him.

"His plans for the middle class, seniors and farmers are superior to the plans the Republicans support," such as the budget pushed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., Hochul said. That budget sharply cuts domestic spending while aiming to reinvent Medicare into a voucher system.

Hochul's independence might seem surprising, given that she was something of a national Democratic hero in wake of her upset triumph in a special election in May 2011.

But it's not surprising to her close friend and colleague, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo.

"She's taking a very thoughtful approach, which is less ideological," Higgins said. "She's voting for her district -- and that's the very nature of representative democracy."

Hochul said she's not experienced any repercussions from the Democratic leadership because of her votes, and Higgins -- who has flashed an independent streak himself on occasion -- said she won't.

The leadership understands that lawmakers have to put their district first, even if it means bucking the party line, Higgins said.

And that's just what Hochul said she intends to keep doing.

"I know my district more than most people do," she said. "And I get up every day and know my job is to be what my job says: U.S. representative. I represent this district, and that's reflected in my votes."