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Higgins' top legislative priorities going nowhere

WASHINGTON – Rep. Brian Higgins entered 2019 with a newfound commitment to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – and a newfound commitment from Pelosi that his two top legislative priorities would be among those the new Democratic House majority would tackle.

But a year later, those two top items – a big infrastructure package and a bill allowing people to sign up for Medicare at age 50 – have gone nowhere.

Higgins doesn't blame Pelosi for that fact.

"We've developed a very productive relationship," Higgins said.

Instead, Higgins blames circumstances beyond his or her control for stymieing his agenda – and independent experts on those two issues  agree.

But Republicans aren't giving Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, a pass on his lack of legislative success.

“Brian Higgins has failed to deliver for Buffalo over the past year because he is too obsessed with impeaching President Trump and kissing Nancy Pelosi’s ring," said Chris Pack, a Buffalo native who serves as communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Higgins certainly wasn't kissing Pelosi's ring in June of 2018. That's when he announced he would not support Pelosi for another term as House  speaker, dismissing her as "aloof, frenetic and misguided."

But by November of last year, attempts to find an alternative to Pelosi had fizzled. Higgins then agreed to back her after she said that Democrats would consider his infrastructure and Medicare proposals.

"I have an agreement in principle with the Democratic leader that those are going to be two priorities," Higgins said at the time.

Higgins had been pushing for years for at least an additional $1.2 trillion in such infrastructure spending. And as 2019 dawned, Democrats talked about such legislation as something that maybe they and the Republican president, Donald Trump, could work on together.

Those plans unraveled in May, when Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, went to the White House to discuss the issue with Trump. The president stormed out of the meeting without discussing infrastructure – and then held an impromptu news conference where he called off any bipartisan deal-making until and unless Democrats stopped investigating his administration.

That meeting had a huge impact, said Brian Turmail, vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives at the Associated General Contractors of America.

"There seemed to be movement earlier this year on infrastructure – and then there was that blow-up meeting at the White House," Turmail said. "And I think that took some of the momentum out of doing a big infrastructure bill."

Higgins doesn't blame Pelosi for that fact.

Regarding a big infrastructure bill, "I expected a good-faith effort to get it done," Higgins said. "I think the facts ... demonstrate a good faith effort has been made."

Higgins' agreement with Pelosi also called for him to be the leading lawmaker on legislation that would allow Americans to buy in to Medicare, the federal health plan for seniors, starting at the age of 50.

He's lined up 48 co-sponsors, including several of the most prominent Democrats in the House, to back that legislation. But that bill stalled as the Democratic Party's presidential candidates immediately claimed space far to the left of Higgins on the health care issue.

"It got pushed aside for Medicare-for-All, including the obliteration of private insurance," Higgins said.

That's just what progressive presidential candidates such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont have advocated: a public health plan not unlike Canada's where all Americans would get their health coverage through Medicare. Meantime, more moderate presidential hopefuls such as former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg have pushed to open up Medicare to any American who wants it.

Those moves by Democratic presidential candidates left no room for a more incremental proposal such as the one Higgins proposed, said Tricia Neuman, vice president and director the the Medicare policy program at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, an independent health care think tank.

But Higgins' proposal could spring back to life next year if a Democrat is elected president and confronts the fact that it may be difficult to enact more sweeping reforms, she said.

"For now, it seems that the party is still very much in flux over what it sees as the next step in the evolution of health reform," Neuman added.

Not surprisingly, Erie County Republican Chairman Karl J. Simmeth Jr. isn't buying the argument that Higgins' legislative priorities are victims of circumstances beyond his control. Instead, he said the Democrats efforts to investigate and impeach Trump have gotten in the way of legislating – and that Higgins isn't a good legislator.

"He allowed Pelosi to play him like a fiddle for his speaker vote and he’s happily served as her useful tool in these endless sham investigations that have brought the people’s business to a grinding halt," Simmeth said. "He’s solidified his position as an ineffective backbencher who is no better at politics than he is at governing.”

Legislative struggles aside, Higgins said he's built a much better relationship with Pelosi over the past year. While Pelosi's office did not respond to a request for comment, Higgins said he and the speaker spoke extensively and cordially when they joined other lawmakers on a trip to Northern Ireland earlier this year.

He said he's also been impressed with Pelosi's leadership as the party moved slowly toward an impeachment investigation.

"I saw in that period what I failed to see previously" regarding Pelosi's leadership skills, Higgins said.

Still, Higgins said he's still glad that he pressured Pelosi for a commitment on his top priorities last year, even if those priorities are now stalled.

"I had to use the leverage that I had at the moment to fight for the legislation that I thought and still think is critically important," he said.

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