WASHINGTON – Anyone who watches cable news probably knows Rep. Chris Collins as one of President Trump's strongest defenders.
But far away from the television cameras, the Republican congressman from Clarence has been disagreeing with the president when Trump's proposals directly threaten Western New York.
When Trump proposed requiring biometric scans at the U.S.-Canadian border, Collins protested – and Trump backed off.
And when Trump announced his 2018 budget proposal two weeks ago, Collins voiced opposition to proposed cuts to Great Lakes funding, home heating aid for the poor, medical research and community development aid.
None of that shows up in fivethirtyeight.com's analysis of House voting records, which shows Collins has voted 100 percent of the time on Trump's side so far this year.
But those votes, and Collins' highly publicized alliance with Trump illustrate only part of what Collins is doing in Washington.
More importantly, Collins said, "My priority is Western New York."
Collins first showed his willingness to buck the president in late January, when the lawmaker sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to protest Trump's proposal to require fingerprints or iris scans for everyone traveling between the United States and Canada. Transportation experts said that would cause long, chaotic lines of traffic at the border, and Collins agreed.
"Biometric entry-exit scanning at our northern border would significantly delay the daily commutes of hardworking Americans and Canadians and cause undue burdens on trade," Collins said in his letter to Kelly.
Collins staff members also called Homeland Security officials to press against the biometric border requirement.
And when Trump released his revised executive order on immigration early this month, the biometric test requirement was pared down dramatically to exempt U.S. and Canadian citizens.
"I would like to think there's a case where common sense prevailed," Collins said in a telephone interview. "It was not a heavy lift. I'm very glad I had some influence on getting that out."
Influencing Trump's upcoming budget might be a much heavier lift for Collins and other lawmakers, such as Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who objects to parts of it.
Trump is calling for a $54 billion increase in defense spending, which meant he had to find an identical amount of cuts in domestic spending. But many of those proposed cuts would harm Buffalo, and Collins said he is prepared to fight them.
Asked about Trump's proposal to eliminate funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative – which is responsible for the revival of the Buffalo River – Collins said: "I don’t support any cuts, and I keep asking for more money for that."
Regarding Trump's proposed elimination of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program – which serves 92,000 families in Erie County – Collins said: "Same answer."
In other words, he plans to fight for more funding for the heating program.
Collins also said there is no way he could support the administration's plan to cut funding for the National Institutes of Health only a year after helping to lead a push for more medical research money, which is crucial to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
And while Collins said he is open to changes in the Community Development Block Grant program, which is set to bring $21 million in federal funds to the Buffalo area for community improvements this year, he doesn't agree with Trump's plan to eliminate the program.
"I understand, as a county executive, how important those funds were," said Collins, who served as Erie County executive from 2008 through 2011, and who remembers those federal funds being used to improve the streetscapes in Lancaster. "So I'd be reluctant to cut that funding."
Collins stressed that Trump's budget is nothing but a messaging document in which the president made clear he wants a huge increase in defense spending. Congress will actually decide the levels of funding through a dozen separate appropriations bills.
"That’s where the rubber hits the road, so I kind of shrug my shoulders a bit on budget messaging because that's all it is," Collins said.
Collins' willingness to disagree with Trump came as no surprise to James E. Campbell, a political science professor at the University at Buffalo and a Republican.
"You have to serve your district to be of value nationally," Campbell said. "He and all members of the House owe their districts a good deal of attention."
If Collins didn't fight for funding for his district and other local matters, he would be inviting a stronger opponent to run against him in 2018, Campbell added.
Then again, Collins may have already done that. His fierce support for the Republican health bill – which drew strong opposition from local health care providers – and his refusal to hold a town hall meeting have prompted regular protests at Collins' district offices.
And while many of the House votes where he supported Trump are of limited local impact, several are controversial.
Collins voted to repeal clean water protections and other environmental regulations, and for a permanent ban on the use of federal funds for health plans that cover abortion.
Some 214 House Republicans, including Collins and Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, have voted with Trump 100 percent of the time this year, according to fivethirtyeight.com's tally. Only 33 GOP lawmakers have bucked the president on House votes.
Those votes prove Collins' true colors, said Michelle Schoeneman, an East Aurora political activist who spearheaded a billboard campaign urging Collins to hold a town hall meeting.
"He's a Trump man," Schoeneman said.
She said that what Collins does regarding the Trump budget in the coming months is more important than what the lawmaker says now.
"I'm skeptical, at best," she said.
Meantime, Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner said that if Collins were truly so tight with Trump, the president's budget would not be filled with cuts aimed at Western New York.
"He's saying he's very influential with President Trump," Zellner said of Collins. "But he's sitting here while all this is happening right under his nose ... What has he delivered? Nothing for his district."
Collins insisted, though, that he will keep disagreeing with the president when the president proposes something bad for Buffalo.
And so far, Collins said, there have been no negative repercussions, despite the president's reputation for demanding complete loyalty.
"The White House appreciates that all politics is local, that we're going to have differences, and that we're going to work together more times than not," Collins said. "They respect that and understand that and no, there's been no negative feedback whatsoever."
Story topics: Shared