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House Dems return to power with rebuke of Collins as Reed sides with majority

WASHINGTON — Democrats plan to take control of the House Thursday by changing the way it does business.

By doing so, they will be handing down a rebuke to Republican Rep. Chris Collins of Clarence as well as a partial victory to Republican Rep. Tom Reed of Corning.

House Democrats will consider a package of new House rules that includes several provisions that should be of grave interest to Collins, who narrowly won re-election in November despite his arrest on felony insider trading charges three months earlier. The rules package will bar lawmakers from serving on the boards of any public corporations — which Collins did before his arrest. And it will bar indicted lawmakers from serving on House committees in the new Congress.

More broadly, the Democrats' rules package includes some, but not all, of the reforms that Reed's Problem Solvers Caucus had been pushing to open up the lawmaking process. The rules package creates a pathway for bipartisan legislation to make it to the floor of the House and eliminates an arcane rules provision that made it easy for factions to rebel against the House speaker. Reed said he was so happy with those reforms — which the Problem Solvers agreed to in November — that he would vote for the Democratic rules package.

Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who is expected to be elected House speaker on Thursday, said the rules package reflects what voters said they wanted when they returned the House to Democratic control.

“By an historic 10 million-vote margin, the American people went to the polls and asked for a professionally run Congress that would be more transparent, ethical and committed to debating and advancing good ideas no matter where they come from," Pelosi said,

The reforms affecting Collins don't come as much of a surprise. Reed and Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-Garden City, sponsored legislation last year that would have barred lawmakers from serving on corporate boards. And then-House Speaker Paul Ryan removed Collins from his seat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee after his arrest.

Reed said such reforms are necessary.

"I do believe that is good for the institution — these reforms as well as others that are in the rules package along these lines," he said.

One other part of the rules package could affect Collins directly. That provision calls for evidence gathered at criminal trials to be used in House ethics investigations if lawmakers are convicted in court. That rule could make it easier for House investigators to build a case for further sanctions against Collins if he is convicted in his criminal trial, which is scheduled for February 2020.

Collins, who served on the board of an Australian biotech called Innate Immunotherapeutics, stands accused of leaking negative inside information about the company's failed drug trials to his son, Cameron. Rep. Collins is not accused of dumping his Innate stock, but Cameron Collins is, and so is Cameron Collins' prospective father-in-law, Stephen Zarsky.

All three men insist they are innocent and plan to fight the charges in court.

The ethics provisions actually make up a small part of the rules package, which also includes two major changes that Pelosi agreed to in talks with the Problem Solvers, the bipartisan group that Reed co-chairs.

Perhaps most importantly, the new rules call for the House to regularly take up measures that have at least 290 co-sponsors, even if those measures get more support from Republicans than Democrats. That change, in effect, eliminates what came to be known as the "Hastert Rule," a Republican practice whereby most legislation needed the support of a majority of the members of the party that controls the House.

In addition, the rules package eliminates an earlier provision that allowed any one member to essentially try to oust the House speaker at any time. That provision often held Republican speakers hostage to the far-right Freedom Caucus.

Given the inclusion of those provisions and others, Reed said he would back the rules package. In doing so, he will be the first House member since 2001 to buck his or her party leadership on the ground rules for a new Congress.

"Overall, I believe the reforms are a net positive for the American people," Reed said.

Reed supports the package even though it includes measures most Republicans object to, including the elimination of a rule that three-fifths of the House must vote for tax increases for them to be approved. Under the Democratic package, a simple majority of the House will be sufficient for measures raising taxes.

Reed acknowledged that the package includes some problematic provisions for Republicans. In addition, the package does not embrace all of the reforms the Problem Solvers advocated — and for that reason, Reed said he would not vote for Pelosi for speaker.

In backing Pelosi, Higgins got what he wanted — and so did she

Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, will vote for Pelosi, despite saying for months that House Democrats need new leadership. Higgins reversed course on Pelosi in November after she agreed to prioritize Higgins' top two issues: a big infrastructure bill and a measure to open Medicare to people over age 50.

And on Wednesday, Higgins made clear that he backs the rules package Pelosi is pushing, which also restores power to House committees and gives individual lawmakers more avenues by which to participate in the legislative process.

"All of this is going to open up the process and empower more members of the House to do what they were elected to do," Higgins said.

One part of the rules package proved to be troublesome, though, to at least some of the House's most progressive members. Incoming Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Bronx Democrat, said she would oppose the rules package because it preserves pay-as-you-go rules that aim to pair spending increases with a way to pay for them.

That appeared to be a small-scale rebellion, however. As of late Wednesday afternoon, only one other House Democrat — Rep. Ro Khanna of California — vowed to oppose the rules package because of the pay-as-you-go provision.

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