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Political fights, like in NY23, may slow down work of Congress


(Allow me to preface this story with a mention that the Senate's version of the Internet piracy bill is losing momentum and that opposition to SOPA is "surging". Mr. Owens said in the editorial board interview that his position has not changed.)

Rep. William L. Owens said he doesn’t believe Congress will get much done in 2012, with political races rather than policy discussions dominating the Washington agenda.

If this week is any indication, his own race won’t be any exception to that rule.

His Republican opponent all but accused him of selling his vote on the open market on an anti-piracy measure. That’s after a back-and-forth between Mr. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, and Republican Matthew A. Doheny over an oil pipeline that would go from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. And in an editorial board meeting with the Watertown Daily Times, Mr. Owens said the sharp and political tone he takes in fundraising e-mails isn’t inconsistent with his calls for civility in Washington.

“It’s two different parts of the life of an elected official,” said Mr. Owens, who has labeled Mr. Doheny as a “far-right millionaire” and a “Tea Party opponent.”

“I understand that that’s part of the political process. That doesn’t mean that when you’re sitting across from somebody, you can’t work with someone.”

He compared it to his former life as a lawyer.

“I could be very combative with somebody, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t friendly with them and couldn’t play golf with them on the weekend,” Mr. Owens said. “You have to be able to separate them.”

After his editorial board interview, Mr. Owens had to put that theory to work. Mr. Doheny’s campaign released a statement accusing Mr. Owens of “selling out his constituency” in favor of big-moneyed interests because of his support for the Stop Online Piracy Act.

In broad categories, unions and trial lawyers were among the groups that both donated to Mr. Owens and support SOPA. But unions and trial lawyers typically support Democrats, whether anti-piracy legislation is on the table or not, making the accusation a stretch.

“These allegations are absurd,” Sean R. Magers, a spokesman for Mr. Owens, said in an e-mail. “Outrageous claims like these do nothing to promote a civil discussion on the issue of Internet piracy. Congressman Owens has said all along that he is open to changes that improve the bill, while still protecting intellectual property rights and American jobs.”

Mr. Doheny urged Mr. Owens to withdraw his support for the bill.

“It’s never too late to reconsider,” Mr. Doheny said in a news release. “I hope that my opponent wakes up today and remembers he’s in office to represent his constituents, not the special interests that plow his campaign coffers with money.”

The Stop Online Piracy Act, sponsored in the House by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, is aimed at curbing foreign websites that host stolen content such as full movies, songs or fake prescriptions. But the bill has been criticized as giving the Department of Justice and private companies too much leeway over whether to shut down those sites. Mr. Owens is a sponsor of the bill and has said he is open to changes, particularly in the way in which a site can appeal the decision to cut off access to it.

Mr. Smith has scheduled public hearings for February, Mr. Owens said.

“It seems like a perfectly reasonable process,” said Mr. Owens, whose office, Facebook page and Twitter feed have been clogged with messages from people who oppose SOPA. “What happened yesterday was democracy in action.”

Mr. Owens said many of the bill’s opponents haven’t offered their own solution.

“They were simply objecting, in essence saying … it should all be free,” Mr. Owens said. Opponents, including callers to his office, said: “ ‘We should be able to access content anytime we want,’ completely ignoring the other side of this discussion.”

The other side, Mr. Owens said, is the harm that pirating content has on the American economy.

But opponents of the measure actually have come forward with an alternative. One bill would give the U.S. International Trade Commission the jurisdiction to decide whether a site is guilty. Mr. Doheny supports this bill, which its supporters describe as less intrusive to Internet providers.

“Rep. Darrell Issa’s Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act, although still evolving, is a step in the right direction,” Mr. Doheny said in an e-mailed news release. “It gives greater enforcement powers to the United States International Trade Commission and limits rogue websites’ ability to profit off their illegal activity while ensuring access to legitimate websites.”

But Mr. Owens said it wasn’t good enough.

“In looking at it, it doesn’t seem to me that it’s addressing the issue of how you protect those content providers,” Mr. Owens said. “This is going to be a very difficult balance to strike, there’s no doubt in my mind.”

Mr. Owens also defended himself from Mr. Doheny’s accusations that he was a “loyal servant” to President Obama on the Keystone XL oil pipeline that would go from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

Mr. Obama’s administration nixed the idea this week. And Mr. Owens voted against a bill that would have moved the project along.

Case closed? Not close.

He supports the pipeline, which he said would help keep the price of oil down, and voted for it in other instances. He only voted against it because it was part of a bill that dealt with a number of other subjects — including a Medicare cut to hospitals.

“You’re doing this all the time,” he said, waving his hands to demonstrate a balance. “You end up saying, this particular situation, I like one, three and five, but I don’t like two, four and six.”

Mr. Owens portrayed the legislation as a “messaging bill” — whose only purpose was to make Democrats like him look bad by choosing between the lesser of two evils. Had he voted for the bill, he would have voted for a Medicare cut. He’d have been criticized either way.

“From my perspective, that was just a messaging bill that the Republicans were putting out,” Mr. Owens said.

There’s much more of that to come, Mr. Owens warned.

The only major piece of legislation Mr. Owens expects to get done is an extension of the payroll tax cut, which expires on Feb. 29. He’s not sure how long it will be extended or how long the unemployment benefits will last — he’s hoping for about 80 weeks with tweaks to the program to help people get back to work.

Mr. Owens said the lame-duck session after the elections will be more productive, and Democratic victories would also help. The Republicans hold a 242-192 edge in the House. The Senate is controlled by Democrats, as is the White House.

“The only way this whole situation changes is if the majority in the House narrows,” Mr. Owens said. “And then that will force people to actually have to negotiate, irrespective of which side is in the majority.”

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