ITHACA, N.Y. – Last week from Albany and Washington… Democrats in the statehouse passed major electoral reforms and a legislative expansion of protections for gender expression. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand declared a bid for presidency. Rep. Tom Reed paid a visit to the White House in an attempt to move forward negotiations to end the government shutdown.

Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (125th Assembly District)

Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, D-Ithaca, is finally seeing electoral reforms that she’s cosponsored for several legislative sessions make it to the governor’s desk.

“Most of these election reform bills are ones for which I have voted repeatedly in the Assembly over the years, and I’m thrilled to see them now moving toward being enacted into law,” Lifton said in a newsletter to constituents last week.

The New York Assembly and Senate hurried the passage of the reforms last Monday. The measures include making the state and federal primary elections fall on the same day, limiting campaign contributions by LLCs, and allowing pre-registration for voters below the age of 18. The package also started the lengthy process of amending the state constitution to allow early voting and no-excuse absentee ballots.

Lifton also supported the Assembly’s move last week to pass the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) and ban “conversion therapy,” or practices that try to change a person’s sexual orientation. Both measures have been repeatedly blocked by the Republican-controlled state Senate in past sessions. GENDA bans discrimination based on gender in a wide variety of areas including housing, employment, education and finances as well as instituting a tough hate crimes statute.

State Senator Tom O’Mara (58th N.Y. Senate District)

Senator Tom O’Mara, R-Big Flats, wasn’t as in favor of the electoral reforms as his Democratic colleagues were. As ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he spoke out in opposition to the constitutional proposals on same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee ballots.

“I think there can be fraud in the absentee process. This may magnify that. Again, I’m concerned about unfunded mandates to our local boards of elections,” O’Mara said.

Republicans oppose many of the electoral reforms citing worries about costs and a possible overload of work for county electoral officials. Counties may bear the costs of changes like early voting, since it appears unlikely the state will foot the bill.

O’Mara was also one of 19 Senate Republicans to vote against the GENDA legislation last week.

Gov. Cuomo also released his proposed executive state budget this week. If other areas of the budget see revenue increases as the governor has proposed, O’Mara and other Senate Republicans want to see more tax cuts instead of spending increases.

“The short-term pursuit of a hard-left, liberal political agenda appears to be the priority over a long-term, sustainable future for upstate, middle-class communities, families, workers, and taxpayers,” O’Mara said.

Rep. Tom Reed (23rd Congressional District)

Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., returned to Washington this week where lawmakers and the president continue to make little progress toward ending the government shutdown, which is nearing the one-month mark.

“Enough is enough,” Reed said on a call with reporters Tuesday. “If our leaders aren’t going to take action to resolve this, then we, who are elected officials, will step in and lead on the issues.”

The next day, Reed, along with members of the bipartisan “Problem Solvers Caucus” which he co-chairs, met with President Trump to discuss potential solutions to the shutdown. It’s not clear what, if any, specific negotiating points were discussed in the meeting. On Saturday, Trump announced he would renew temporary protected status for some immigrants and issue a three-year renewal for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Democratic House Speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, immediately voiced opposition to the president’s deal because it still includes $5.7 billion in funding for a southern border wall.

Reed responded with a public statement following the speech, writing, “It is my hope the Democrat party leadership will show a willingness to compromise and govern for the American people instead of being beholden by the extremists in their party.”

Reed voted against two Democratic-led efforts to temporarily reopen closed federal agencies last week. The first was a straight continuing resolution which would have restored funding agencies through Feb. 1. A similar continuing resolution was added to an otherwise bipartisan package to extend aid funding to disaster areas impacted by hurricanes Michael and Maria as well as wildfires in California. Reed told reporters on a conference call Tuesday he opposed the bills because he didn’t think they would pass the Senate or be signed by the president.

The House also voted this week to condemn white nationalism and white supremacy after comments made by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, to The New York Times. Reed voted in favor and told reporters he agrees with disciplinary action the House has taken to condemn King. Reed also joined 135 other Republicans in voting to block the Trump administration’s attempt to lift sanctions on a Russian oligarch. That measure, however, failed in the Senate.

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., announced she was officially launching an exploratory committee to run for president last week. By the end of the week, she was formally campaigning in one of the first caucus states, Iowa.

Missing votes is a normal occurrence for members of Congress exploring bids for the presidency while they’re on the campaign trail. Gillibrand missed two of the Senate’s five votes last week. Capitol Watch will continue to monitor missed votes during her campaign.

Gillibrand was in the Senate to cast a vote to bar the Treasury Department from lifting sanctions on a Russian oligarch. Despite overwhelming support in the House and several Republican defectors in the Senate, the measure failed 47-42, meaning the Trump administration will be able to move ahead and lift the sanctions.

Writer’s Note: “Capitol Watch” does not cover legislators’ campaign activities unless they have a direct impact on that individual’s policy stances, legislative duties or other responsibilities as an already-elected representative.

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., continues to be at the forefront of negotiations with President Trump over the government shutdown and wall funding impasse. Schumer reacted to the president’s compromise proposal Saturday, expressing that Democrats would only negotiate on broader immigration reforms after the government is reopened.

“It was the president who single-handedly took away DACA and TPS protections in the first place—offering some protections back in exchange for the wall is not a compromise but more hostage taking,” Schumer said in a statement.

The Senate reconvenes Tuesday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., plans to bring forward legislation with Trump’s compromises for a vote. It appears that the plan isn’t likely to pass the Senate, with several key Democratic swing senators expressing their opposition.

Vaughn Golden

Vaughn Golden is a freelance radio and print reporter covering politics around the southern tier and central New York. He authors the weekly "Capitol Watch" watchdog report on Ithaca's representatives...